By Maya Rhodan
When Rep. Gwen Moore [D-Wisc.] stood near President Obama last Thursday as he signed the Violence Against Women Act into law, as a rape survivor, she knew the benefit of the legislation as well as well as anyone in the room.
“I am so pleased to join President Obama and so many of my colleagues for this historic signing,” she said. “The reauthorization of VAWA has been a long time coming, but the majority of Congress finally came together and did the right thing on behalf of women across this country. This legislation will help all women – including Native, LGBT and immigrant women – come out of the shadows of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking.”
President Obama signed the reauthorized bill last week after Congress united and voted to expand the law to offer protection to women in lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and Native American communities. While holding on to the original provisions, including those in place to protect immigrant women from deportation when they report abuse, the expanded law now provides services to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, regardless of sexual orientation.
Rep. Moore, members of advocate groups, survivors of abuse, politicians, and supporters cheered as the president signed the bill into law at the Department of the Interior.
“This is a day for the advocates, a day for survivors. This is your victory,” the president said at the ceremony. “This victory shows that when the American people make their voices heard, Washington listens.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who helped draft the original bill, were also on stage with Obama.
Every minute in America, 24 people become victims of stalking, rape, or violence by an intimate partner, resulting in about 12 million people becoming victims every year. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 23.6 percent of women report being victims of intimate partner violence.
“One of the greatest sins that can be committed is an abuse of power and the ultimate abuse of power is for someone bigger and stronger to raise their hand to strike someone else,” said Vice President Joe Biden, who drafted the original Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
Since then, reported incidents have been on the decline. Between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence decreased by 67 percent, according to the White House fact sheet.
President Bill Clinton first signed the Violence Against Women Act into law in 1994. The act provides federal funds and support to organizations that serve victims of domestic violence and rape.
The law has improved how victims of rape and domestic violence are treated under the law and strengthened penalties on rapists and sexual offenders. Since the law was first passed reports of domestic violence have increased by nearly 50 percent, and a 35 percent decrease in the rate of intimate partner homicide.
According to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, 45 percent of LGBT victims are turned away from domestic violence shelters and 55 percent of those who sought protection orders were denied.
“This is a country where everybody should be able to pursue their own measure of happiness and live their lives free from fear no matter who you are, no matter who you love,” President Obama said. “That’s what today’s about.”
The expanded Violence Against Women Act will also allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Natives who are perpetrators of sexual violence. Although non-Indians commit 75 percent of abuse of Native women, non-Indians could not be prosecuted by tribal courts and often were not prosecuted at all. The rate of domestic violence among Native American women is nearly 40 percent.
“The passage of the Violence Against Women Act gives tribes badly needed tools to combat the epidemic of violence and abuse in Indian Country that has been enabled by inadequate judicial and legal authority,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) one of the only Native Americans in Congress, in a statement on the act. “Like all legislation, the bill is not perfect… when it comes to tribal issues, however, the legislation gets it right.”
Native American women are also killed at a rate 10 times the national average, while one in three women in tribal communities are raped in their lifetime according to the Indian Law Resource Center. Three in five will be assaulted.
The reauthorized law also addresses violence among teens and young adults, which has seen a spike in the past decade. According to the teen dating advocacy group Break the Cycle, young women, ages 16-24, experience dating violence at a rate that is almost triple the national average.
In the new law, schools, youth organizations and domestic violence groups will receive support to better target young adults. Colleges and universities will also be required to provide information, support, and resources on dating, sexual and domestic violence to students.
The bill also expands housing assistance for abused women. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families.
This is the first time since the law has been passed that reauthorization was met with some resistance, this time over the inclusion of women in the LGBT community.
In the end, the House passed the legislation by a margin of 286-138 and the Senate by a vote of 68-31, with one Senator not voting.
“Back when Joe wrote this law, domestic abuse was too often seen as a private matter, best hidden behind closed doors. Victims too often stayed silent,” President Obama said. “But one of the great legacies of this law is that it didn’t just change the rules, it changed our culture.”