By Kathryn Tullos
Congress probably will consider reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) during the current session. Authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, the bill originally passed in 1994. VAWA must be reauthorized every five years, and Congress approved that reauthorization several times during both Democratic and Republican administrations. However, in 2019, legislation to reauthorize the law died in the Senate. Opposition to the 2019 measure came from critics of measures expanding opportunities for immigrant victims of domestic violence to remain in the United States legally and protections for persons in same-sex relationships, as well as opponents of provisions limiting gun ownership by perpetrators of domestic violence or sexual assault.
VAWA is important because it changed the legal landscape in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. The original Act contained a number of measures that helped close loopholes in domestic violence cases. For example, the Act required each state to recognize protective orders issued in any other state and provided incentives for states to enact laws mandating that police make arrests when they respond to domestic violence incidents. VAWA also created an Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice and enabled federal prosecutors to act in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault crimes that had crossed state lines. The Act also has provided approximately $8 billion in grants for education and crisis assistance related to domestic violence and sexual assault. More recent iterations of VAWA have focused on outreach to marginalized persons, such as immigrants, Native Americans, and people of color and have prohibited measures that discouraged reporting of violence and assault, such as requiring rape victims to pay for their testing in hospitals and clinics.
Advocates of VAWA point to significant progress in the area of domestic violence since it became law. Roughly half of the states enacted mandatory arrest laws during that period. Too, the United States has seen substantial declines in rates of violence against intimate partners since 1994. According to the Congressional Research Service, the incidence of serious intimate partner violence against women declined 70% between 1994 and 2018; the incidence against men declined 87% in the same period. Advocates note, however, that domestic violence and sexual assault remain significant problems. Experts estimate that as many as one in three American women will experience one or both of these during her lifetime.
Congress likely will consider reauthorization and expansion of VAWA in its current session. During his campaign, President Biden marked this as a top priority. He called in particular for expansion of access to services for victims of violence who live in rural areas and for more resources to house women fleeing abuse. In addition, a number of professional groups that deal with domestic violence and sexual assault have announced support for reauthorization. In the legal field, the American Bar Association has called for reauthorization. And in the medical field, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports VAWA and has urged Congress to appropriate emergency funds to expand services to domestic violence victims trapped with their abusers during the COVID pandemic.