The Violence Against Women Act, 23 years later

By Lynn Rosenthal, Director for Violence Against Women Initiatives

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in Austin, Texas, in October 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. For me, this is an important day of reflection.

As a young college student, I was abused by a boyfriend. There was nowhere to turn at that time. The term “dating violence” didn’t even exist. One small battered women’s shelter had just opened in my town, but I wouldn’t have known what that was or how to make my way there. I dropped out of college, and was derailed for much of my early adult life because of what happened to me. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and other related programs did not exist at that time.

When Joe Biden introduced VAWA to the Senate floor in 1990, he faced a culture of indifference and victim-blaming. Over years of hearings and debates, opponents of VAWA dismissed domestic violence as a “private family matter.” They said this issue was none of the government’s concern. They said some victims of domestic violence and sexual assault brought it on themselves. Over the next few years, Joe Biden brought survivors to the U.S. Senate to tell their stories, to expose the ugly truth of domestic violence. Eventually, hearts and minds began to change, and on September 13th, 1994, VAWA was signed into law.

By that time, I was working in a domestic violence shelter in Florida. I knew that this moment — when VAWA brought the crisis of violence against women into the public consciousness — would set off enormous change.

Today, we know better than to excuse violence against women, or to pretend it’s not happening. Through its critical assistance and intervention programs, VAWA makes a difference in someone’s life every day. And we’ve seen this difference on a systemic level as well. Annual rates of domestic violence dropped by 64 percent from 1993 to 2012.

In the beginning, Joe Biden sought to establish a national consensus that violence against women was unacceptable. He knew then that VAWA would evolve over time, and it has. In 2005, VAWA was expanded to focus on dating violence and to include housing protections for survivors. New funding streams were directed to initiatives serving communities of color.

In 2013, after a protracted fight in Congress, VAWA included groundbreaking new provisions to address the shockingly high rates of violence against Native women and to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ survivors. VAWA 2013 also promoted new tools to address intimate partner homicides: States must include goals for reducing homicides in their VAWA plans, and communities can apply for funds to develop high-risk teams. None of this would have happened without the leadership of advocates and survivors.

But as Joe Biden says every day, our work is not done. As Vice President, he exposed the stubborn rates of dating and sexual violence facing teens and young adults. Three women a day are still killed by intimate partners, and Black women are killed at rates more than twice as high as white women. While VAWA includes critical protections for immigrant victims, today’s anti-immigrant climate and policies are having a chilling effect on women’s abilities to access these protections.

Today, Vice President Biden is continuing his life’s work of ending violence against women, and the Biden Foundation is proud to be part of this mission. We know violence must be addressed from all angles — from life-saving resources for survivors to consent education for teens — and we know that many of the programs already in place to tackle these issues would not exist without VAWA.

We’ll be spending the next week talking more about this landmark legislation: its goals, its accomplishments, and the continuing work it has set out for us. Look for the tag #VAWA23 on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about why Joe Biden is still fighting — why we’re all still fighting — over two decades later.

Lynn Rosenthal is the Director for Violence Against Women Initiatives at the Biden Foundation. She worked with Vice President Biden as the first-ever White House Adviser on Violence Against Women. She has also served as executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and began her career at the grassroots level as a women’s health activist and organizer.

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