2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the historic passage of the watershed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—the first comprehensive federal legislative package designed to end violence against women—which was signed into law in September, 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
VAWA was the brainchild of then-Senator Joe Biden, who came to Legal Momentum (then known as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund) in 1990 with a preliminary proposal. Working closely with the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Legal Momentum brought experts and organizations together in the Task Force on Violence Against Women, which later became the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, which we continue to lead and which has continued to help draft and pass each VAWA reauthorization, in 2000, 2005, 2011, and 2013.
VAWA was designed to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence and increase the availability of services to victims. VAWA included provisions on rape and battering that focused on prevention, funding for victim services, and evidentiary matters. It also included the first federal criminal law against battering and a requirement that every state afford full faith and credit to orders of protection issued anywhere in the United States. Since the passage of VAWA, from law enforcement, to victim services, to Capitol Hill, there has been a paradigm shift in how the issue of violence against women is addressed.
Initially, the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) was the only judicial organization to support the civil rights remedy. Through dedicated redrafting and advocacy efforts, by the time it was approved VAWA 1994 had the bipartisan support of 226 sponsors in the House and 68 in the Senate.
VAWA also established the Office of Violence Against Women within the U.S Justice Department. The protections and provisions afforded by the l994 legislation have been expanded and improved repeatedly, in the Violence Against Women Act of 2000, the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which was signed into law last March and contained provisions that strengthened the ability of tribal courts to hold non-Native abusers accountable in tribal court, and contained non-discrimination provisions that would ensure that the LGBT community was better able to access VAWA-funded services. We are indebted to Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy and Sen. Mike Crapo for their leadership in crafting a strong bi-partisan bill and shepherding it through to passage one year ago this week.
Five years ago, Legal Momentum presented the Hero Award to Vice President Biden for initiating and championing VAWA. In accepting the award, Biden stated “We made a lot of progress in 15 years, a lot of progress. Violence against women by a spouse or boyfriend has dropped almost 60 per cent since 1994…Today more than half of all rape victims are stepping forward to report the crime. Now that’s a gigantic change, and since we passed the Act in 1994 more than one million women have found justice in our courtrooms and have obtained domestic violence protective orders... We have to maintain that progress. There is so much more we have to do…The single most important thing we could do to reduce violence in America—the single most significant thing we could do to reduce overall violence in America—is to end violence against women.”