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What Is the Violence Against Women Act?
A comprehensive guide to understanding VAWA and how it was designed to help survivors of domestic violence
- Nov 15, 2021
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a piece of U.S. federal legislation specifically designed to provide protections for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The bill was authored and sponsored by future President Joe Biden and signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. It authorized $1.6 billion over six years toward the investigation, prosecution and prevention of violent crimes against both women and men. The Act also led to the creation of the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. You can read the full Act here.
Since its inception, VAWA has awarded over $8 billion in grants and cooperative agreements to 19 different grant programs. The largest grants, representing about 40% of annual grants, fund domestic violence and sexual assault programs and shelters, and help strengthen effective law enforcement and prosecution strategies to combat violent crimes against women.
Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S.
It’s estimated that up to 5.3 million women in the U.S. will experience domestic abuse each year, though the number is hard to pinpoint exactly since it’s one of the most underreported crimes. Men can be victims of domestic violence, as well—the CDC reports one in 10 men in the U.S. experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime — however, at least 85 percent of victims of domestic violence are women.
Domestic violence or IPV affects all ages, races and backgrounds with women of color, specifically Black and indigenous women, experiencing exponentially higher rates of domestic violence than white women.
The effects of domestic abuse are long-lasting. Trauma can affect a survivor for a lifetime, manifesting in post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, chronic pain, sleep disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and an increased risk for suicide, just to name a few. The effects of childhood domestic violence are also widespread—younger children who witness abuse can suffer behavioral and mental issues as well as have an increased risk for chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Not only does domestic violence affect the health and safety of U.S. citizens, it also affects the economy. According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, IPV can cost anywhere from $1.7 billion to $10 billion annually in lost work, healthcare costs, crisis intervention services and legal services.
VAWA’s Up-and-Down Reauthorization History
VAWA is up for reauthorization every five years and was successfully passed with wide bi-partisan support by Congress in 2000 and 2005 before stalling in 2010 and again today. While reauthorization has had its had ups, downs and political delays, the lapses in passage have not stemmed the flow of money as Congress has always continued funding programs related to VAWA.
In March of 2021 a bipartisan bill to renew and improve VAWA was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Hon. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Hon. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-1) and Hon. Jerrold Nadler (NY-10) and successfully passed. The bill, H.R. 1620, includes $40 million in funding for culturally specific services including restoration of tribal jurisdiction that would allow tribes to hold non-native perpetrators of violent crimes accountable when they commit these crimes on tribal lands. It also includes alternative routes to justice that would focus on victim autonomy, restorative justice and responses beyond a criminal system approach and would close dangerous loopholes in the existing federal domestic violence-related firearms laws.
As of yet, no date has been set for the Senate to vote on VAWA, but individuals can call their lawmakers and urge them to take action. Read, “How to Call Your Lawmakers” for more information.
The Protections VAWA Offers
VAWA was written to protect survivors and end intimate partner violence on many levels. Each year that VAWA is renewed, it adds additional protections for survivors. Some of its statutes include:
- Acknowledgment of domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes when state lines are crossed.
- Enacting laws that make stalking a crime in every state.
- Funding for community-coordinated responses to ending intimate partner violence.
- Dedicated legal assistance programs for victims.
- Funding for rape crisis centers, support groups, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing.
- Protections for tenants who face eviction due to domestic violence. Read more in “Who Pays for Damages?”
- Additional training for personnel who provide services to victims of IPV.
- The inclusion of Native American-specific and LGBTQ+-specific programs for victims of IPV.
- Doubling federal penalties for repeat sex offenders.
- Lawful immigration status for victims of domestic violence who might otherwise rely on an abusive partner to file for them. This prevents and abusive partner from trapping a survivor with them while holding their permanent citizenship in the U.S. essentially hostage. Read more in “How U-Visas Help Immigrant Victims of Domestic Abuse.”
Where Advocates Say VAWA Needs to Expand Protections
The current version of VAWA does not extend protection to victims of:
- Female genital mutilation (FGM). It’s estimated more than 500,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk of FGM or are victims of it, and advocates would like to see harsher penalties for the abuse as well as additional funding to combat FGM.
- Honor killings
- Forced child marriages
- Unmarried gun violence victims. Closing the “boyfriend loophole” would prevent non-spousal abusers convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a firearm (currently, only abusers who are or were married to the survivor, or who share a child with the survivor, are prohibited from purchasing firearms after a domestic violence conviction).
- Victims of revenge porn, an abuse tactic included as an amendment in the 2021 VAWA bill.
VAWA as it Protects Immigrants
Elizabeth Ricci is an immigration lawyer out of Florida who’s been in practice for over 20 years. She’s assisted many undocumented survivors in reporting domestic violence while staying in the country.
“We see a lot of domestic violence cases and VAWA is a way that people who are in relationships with permanent residents are able to get permanent residency without having to rely on that spouse for immigration support,” says Ricci. “Many times, victims are threatened that if they don’t stay with the abuser, they can be deported.”
The fear of deportation as a retaliation tactic comes both from the abuser as well as a distrust of police who will respond if the survivor calls 911.
“It’s a legitimate fear,” says Ricci. “Unfortunately, they don’t feel like they can go to law enforcement.”
Ricci says she helps both female and male survivors of abuse secure U-Visas in order to stay in the country while escaping an abusive partner, and that not all cases of abuse need to be physical in order to qualify a survivor for a U-Visa, citing a case where she helped an immigrant apply for a U-Visa after his wife set their car on fire.
There are myriad types of special visas for immigrant victims of crimes—see VAWnet.org to learn more.
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Has VAWA Made an Impact?
Undoubtedly, the programs created by VAWA have helped advance protections and resources for survivors, and most advocates would argue that renewing the Act is vitally important to continuing these lifesaving programs.
Some numbers even show staggering results. For instance in a 2010 report released by the White House, domestic violence crime has dropped 58 percent since the inception of VAWA. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported an even higher number, citing a 64 percent decrease in intimate partner violence from 1994 to 2010, from 9.8 victimizations per 1,000 persons in 1994 to 3.6 per 1,000 in 2010. The hope is that domestic violence has indeed decreased – the devil is always in the detail when it comes to statistics and who is reporting them for what purpose – and even if it has, most anyone working at a domestic violence hotline or shelter will tell you the prevalence of victimization is constant and still too common.
To learn more about the inconsistencies of domestic violence statistics read, “Do Domestic Violence Statistics Matter?”
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