Domestic Violence Awareness month is a time to reflect on how far we’ve come to address this public health problem and the continued steps we must take to eliminate it.
The first shelter for battered women did not open in the United States until 1974. At that time, people looking to leave violent partners had few resources. Domestic violence was not openly discussed and, in most cases, the stigma left those experiencing this private pain without many options. By 1994, thanks to tireless advocacy and an increased understanding of the pervasiveness of domestic violence, Congress took the critical step of passing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
As the nation’s first-ever law to recognize the scourge of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and dating violence, VAWA was a historic breakthrough. Not only did the law acknowledge and legitimize the experiences of millions of Americans, it dedicated federal resources to addressing and preventing domestic abuse and established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice to focus exclusively on the problem.
Since the passage of VAWA, the rate of domestic violence has declined by over 50%. Still, far too many experience violence and abuse from an intimate partner. A recent study found one in three American women report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetimes. If we are to build on the past 25 years of successful domestic violence reduction, VAWA must continue to have strong support in Congress.
In April, the US House voted to reauthorize and strengthen VAWA with bipartisan support. The legislation includes dozens of new protections, including the closure of the so-called “boyfriend loophole” which would prohibit people convicted of domestic violence from obtaining a firearm. A woman is five times more likely to be killed if her abuser has access to a gun. And data show that in mass shootings where four or more people are killed, 54% of the shooters killed their intimate partner. I believe that closing this loophole will go a long way toward preventing lethal domestic violence.
The House bill also included language that I supported to extend VAWA protections to Maine tribes. Due to previous interpretations of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, tribes in our state have not been eligible for protections that had been extended virtually everywhere else. Tribes across the country have seen the value of these protections, including improved public safety for all of those living on tribal lands, more active community conversations about preventing domestic violence, and increased collaboration among tribes and local, state, governments. Maine tribes deserve access to those same benefits.
When you consider how far we’ve come since the 1970s, we’ve made important progress. But our work is not over. It has been six months since the law expired and survivors are counting on Congress to act. I hope to see the US Senate vote as soon as possible on the House bill, which preserves and expands so many important programs for people in violent situations seeking help.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please know that resources are available. It is a pervasive problem for every community and there is no shame in getting help, no matter who you are. Confidential assistance from a trained advocate is available 24/7 from the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1–800–799–7233).