The Importance of the Violence Against Women Act
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a landmark federal legislation passed in 1994 that forms our nation’s foundation to respond to and prevent gender-based violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and stalking, and authorizes funding to prevent such violence and to assist survivors. The law criminalizes such violence at the federal level and also provides resources for community-coordinated responses that work to end violence and support survivors. These programs are administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
VAWA created the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) within the Department of Justice that is responsible for the implementation of the 1994 Act and all subsequent reauthorization legislation and the disbursement of funds related to VAWA. The Act, which requires reauthorization every five years, has expanded its protections and programs with each of its three reauthorizations.
President Joe Biden, who at that time was chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, was the chief author of VAWA and worked closely with Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal and other feminist leaders and groups to ensure broad protections and support for victims and survivors of gender-based violence. The Feminist Majority Foundation has been involved in the drafting of VAWA reauthorizations since 1994 and was instrumental in the inclusion of the Campus SaVE Act in the 2013 bill.
When VAWA was passed in 1994, it created new criminal offenses and penalties for perpetrators, increased sentencing for repeat offenders, and bolstered the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes. It provided grants to law enforcement, violence prevention groups, and women’s shelters. The bill also launched and funds the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Most importantly, VAWA has provided significant authorizing legislation for funding programs to prevent sexual violence. From its enactment through fiscal year 2018, the Office of Violence against Women has awarded some $8 billion in grants and cooperative agreements with state, tribal, and local agencies, non-profit organizations and universities. In fiscal year 2019 another $559 million was appropriated for VAWA to be administered by OVW and other federal agencies.
VAWA has proven to be effective and cost-efficient. A report of the Bureau of Justice Studies found that intimate partner violence had been reduced by 67% in the first 10 years of VAWA.
VAWA support was initially bipartisan, but its past and current reauthorizing legislation has been delayed by partisan opposition. Fortunately, these delays have not affected funding. Congress can and has continued funding for its programs, even though it has not been reauthorized. The reauthorization legislation has been used to expand its coverage and programs.
Current Status of VAWA
VAWA was introduced for reauthorization in the spring of 2019, and was passed by the House of Representatives, but has yet to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. What seems to be holding it up is that the House bill closes the “boyfriend” loophole, which bans gun ownership for abusive intimate partners. The current jurisdiction of VAWA does not include intimate partners who do not live together, which the House bill would change. The National Rifle Association (NRA) objects to closing the loophole. What’s more, the House bill covers key protections for LGBTQ+ survivors and important provisions concerning murdered and missing Indigenous women that would stop non-Native defendants from moving their prosecution from tribal courts to state courts. But, Congressional appropriation of funds for VAWA implementation has continued.
VAWA 2000 Renewal
The 2000 VAWA reauthorization created a legal assistance program for victims and community-coordinated responses to dating violence and stalking. It also reauthorized the original VAWA grant programs and strengthened protections for immigrants and survivors of sexual assault and dating violence.
Supreme Court Ruling on VAWA
A student who alleged she was sexually assaulted by two football players while attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute And State University pursued a federal civil lawsuit against them and the university using a provision of VAWA that permitted survivors to initiate a federal civil suit to collect damages. VAWA initially included a provision that gave survivors of sexual violence a civil right to sue their attacker(s) or institution(s), such as universities, in federal court. In May of 2000, by a ruling of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled this provision was unconstitutional.
VAWA 2005 Renewal
The 2005 VAWA reauthorization improved protections and services for marginalized populations, including people of color, immigrants, and Indigenous communities. It encouraged a coordinated response between law enforcement, health professionals, housing officials, and community organizations. It strengthened housing protections for survivors, increased funding for rape crisis centers and culturally sensitive services. It also enhanced penalties for repeat stalking and included cyberstalking as a federal offense.
VAWA 2013 Renewal
In 2013, the VAWA reauthorization enhanced protections and support for LGBTQ+ and Native survivors, as well as antidiscrimination protections for victims seeking monetary support from grant-funded organizations. It also strengthened the fight against human trafficking, granted housing rights to victims who are in an unsafe living situation, and expanded the information that colleges and universities must provide on sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
The Feminist Majority Foundation worked closely on the inclusion of the Campus Sexual Assault Violence Elimination Act in the 2013 reauthorization. Also known as the Campus SaVE Act, the legislation established stricter rules for addressing sexual violence on college campuses.
The act compels colleges and universities to maintain statistics on intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Those statistics, as well as all anti-sexual violence policies, must be published in an annual security report that includes information on violent crimes committed on or near a campus over the past three years. Colleges and universities must also guarantee rights, protections, and reasonable accommodations to survivors of sexual violence regardless of whether or not a survivor reports the incident to law enforcement. The act also includes a provision that higher education institutions must provide sexual violence prevention awareness and education programs to all enrolled students. The act also ensures that colleges and universities establish protocol for disciplinary proceedings, which are required to be impartial and must occur in a timely manner.