Twenty-two Years of Progress with the Violence Against Women Act
Even just twenty years ago, violence against women was considered a private matter, a “family affair.” Victims suffered in silence when the court of law and court of public opinion turned a blind eye to a national secret hiding in plain sight.
Too often judges, lawyers, even friends and family, blamed the victims instead of the perpetrator.
“What were you wearing? What did you say?”
Too few ever asking, “Why did he think he could do what he did?”
That was the culture back when I first started writing the Violence Against Women Act. But I was convinced that if we pulled back the curtain on this dirty little secret — the vast majority of the American people would demand change.
So my staff and I spent thousands of hours of research. We held hundreds of hours of hearings. We heard testimony from advocates and experts, health professionals, psychiatrists, and brave survivors.
Survivors with absolute courage who told their story to the nation — the model who was slashed in the face because she didn’t go out with her landlord; the college freshman, who told her RA that she didn’t think she was raped because she “knew him.”
Slowly, the country began to realize that we needed to change our laws — and our culture when it comes to how women were treated in our society. We had to change the culture of violence. We had to throw out the mindset that excuses abuse or sexual assault by saying “boys will be boys.” We had to protect a survivor’s fundamental right to justice.
It took several years before the Violence Against Women Act was finally enacted into law. But over the past 22 years, we’ve made great progress because of it.
We’ve saved lives. Domestic violence rates have dropped 72 percent from 1993 to 2014.
We’ve saved costs for the country. In the first 6 years after VAWA passed, our country saved an estimated $12.6 billion in averted social costs, medical costs, and the costs associated with the loss of productivity in the workplace.
We’ve provided more resources — rape crisis centers and forensic nurses and examiners are in nearly every major city in America, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline has been used by more than 4 million women and men.
We’ve reauthorized VAWA three times over the years — expanding protections to Native American women, immigrants, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and victims in public housing.
We’re leading the charge to end sexual assault on college campuses, where one in five women will be victims of rape or sexual assault while in college. We created the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault that’s provided guidance for colleges and universities on how to investigate these crimes and provide victims the resources they need to recover. We’ve made clear to every college president that they are subject to investigation by the Department of Education and Department of Justice for Title IX violations. If the school knows of a possible sexual assault, it must take immediate steps to investigate and remedy the problem.
And we launched the “It’s On Us” campaign to ask everyone — men and women across America — to make a personal commitment to step off the sidelines and be part of the solution to change the culture of campus sexual assault. Over 350,000 people have signed up already at ItsOnUs.org.
But there’s always still more to do.
We have to end the rape kit backlog. Testing rape kits gives women the best chance of identifying her attacker through DNA and holding the offender accountable. For example, in Detroit they have tested over 10,000 of their rape kits, and it has led to identifying 770 suspected serial rapists in 40 states.
We have to stop violence against indigenous women and girls.
We have to reauthorize VAWA again in 2018 to strengthen housing and employment security, improve the criminal justice response, fortify protections for the most vulnerable groups, and increase funding to support survivors.
But if there is one lesson I’ve learned over the last twenty years on a law that I consider one of my proudest legislative accomplishments — it’s that we have to keep the faith. We have to stay vigilant, and we have to keep doing everything we can to change the culture.
I know we can. All of the progress we’ve made is because of a law given life by countless advocates, nurses, doctors, educators, prosecutors, judges — and brave survivors who make all of us look in the mirror and ask, “what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of country do we want to be?”
We will have succeeded when no woman will ask “what did I do,” and when society does not allow any man to say “she deserved it, it was my right.”
Women and girls are entitled to live in a country where their life is free from fear, free from violence against them because they’re a woman or girl.
It’s on all of us to make that happen.