Violence Against Women Act – 21st Anniversary

Domestic-Violence-Awareness October


On September 13, 2015 we commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),  a landmark piece of legislation that continues to improve the lives of millions of women, their families, and the communities that support them.  The far-reaching impact of this legislation has impacted the lives of millions of people — playing a crucial role in communities by providing important services to those who are most vulnerable.

Sen Mikulski (D-MD)
Sen Mikulski (D-MD)

As a cosponsor of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 along with then Senator Joseph Biden, Jr., Senator Mikulski has continued to fight against domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, crimes of epidemic proportions that are exacting terrible costs on individual lives and our communities. Twenty-five percent of women in the U.S. report that they have been physically assaulted by an intimate partner during their lifetimes, one in six have been the victims of attempted or completed rape, and the cost of domestic violence exceeds $8 billion each year.

“Sunday, September 13th marks the 21st anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). I have zero tolerance for domestic violence. No woman in this nation should live in fear for her safety or the safety of her children. These victims need to have access to resources that can provide them with help. That’s why I was proud to cosponsor this legislation when it was first enacted in 1994, and I am proud to have fought for every single one of its reauthorizations since. ~ Sen. Mikulski 9/10/15


When Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act  in 1994, it was a considered a major strike against the scourge of domestic violence as it addressed the problem of cops treating domestic violence as private family matters instead of serious crimes. With grant funding as reward and with the backing of many leaders in the battered women’s movement, VAWA encouraged states to adopt mandatory arrest policies that allowed domestic violence cases to move forward without the cooperation of victims.

The Act provided $1.6 billion toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose to leave unprosecuted. The Act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. Its coverage extended to male victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking..

VP Joe Biden
VP Joe Bide

VAWA was drafted by the office of Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), with support from a broad coalition of advocacy groups and passed through Congress with bipartisan support in 1994.

President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act into law as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The VAWA tenets:

  •  Requires a coordinated community response to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking crimes, encouraging jurisdictions to bring together multiple players to share experience and information and to use their distinct roles to improve community‐defined responses.
  • Strengthens federal penalties for repeat sex offenders and included a federal “rape shield law,” which is intended to prevent offenders from using victims’ past sexual conduct against them during a rape trial.
  • Creates full faith and credit provisions requires states and territories to enforce protection orders issued by other states, tribes and territories.
  • Creates legal relief for battered immigrants that made it more difficult for abusers to use immigration law to prevent victims from calling the police or seeking safety.
  • Allows victims to seek civil rights remedies for gender‐related crimes.

In the 2000 Supreme Court case United States v. Morrison, a sharply divided Court struck down the VAWA provision allowing women the right to sue their attackers in federal court. By a 5–4 majority, the Court overturned the provision as an intrusion on states’ rights.

The amended version of VAWA was reauthorized by Congress in 2000, and again in December 2005.

In April of 2012, the Senate approved VAWA reauthorization fairly easily, with a 68 to 31 vote. The bill was co-written by a Liberal Democrat (Vermont’s Pat Leahy) and a Conservative Republican (Idaho’s Mike Crapo), and seemed on track to be reauthorized without much of a fuss, just as it was in 2000 and 2005…

But by the end of 2012, Congress still had a long ‘to do’ list before them, with a series of measures that needed action before 2013 began. Some of the items passed (a fiscal agreement, a temporary farm bill), while others didn’t (relief funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy). The Violence Against Women Act was included in this list and was supposed to be one of the year’s easy ones…only, it wasn’t.

Activists Holds Rally For Re-Authorization Of The Violence Against Women Act

GOP blocks Violence Against Women Act 

House Republicans insisted the bill was too supportive of immigrants, the LGBT community, and Native Americans — and they’d rather let the law expire than approve a slightly expanded proposal. Vice President Biden, who helped write the original law, tried to persuade House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to keep the law alive, but the efforts didn’t go anywhere.

For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was no more.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the Democratic point person on VAWA, said in a

Sen Patty Murray (D-WA)
Sen Patty Murray (D-WA)


“The House Republican leadership’s failure to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable. This is a bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate and that extends the bill’s protections to 30 million more women. But this seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right-wing of their party always comes first.”

GOP is dead

Republicans lost badly in the 2012 elections, due in part to the largest gender gap in modern times, but if that changed GOP attitudes towards legislation affecting women, they hid it well. (Women are still fighting for their constitutional rights in 2015 as the GOP ‘War On Women’ continues…)

Finally, in February of 2013, the Senate agreed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, showing bipartisan support for a measure that would revamp domestic violence programs and extend the law’s protections to gays and lesbians as well as women on tribal reservations. President Obama signed the amended version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 on 3/7/2013. The Violence Against Women Act is extended until fiscal year 2018.

President Obama signs VAWA Reauthorization 2013
President Obama signs VAWA Reauthorization 2013

Critics of the VAWA

Since it was first passed in 1994, VAWA has been credited with raising awareness of the problems of domestic violence, helping to bring down the number of cases reported.

But domestic violence is often concealed from public view. We only hear it muffled through walls or see the aftermath in faded yellow and purple bruises of a woman who “walked into a doorway” or “fell down the stairs.”  Despite efforts to increase awareness of domestic violence, it is still treated as a private crime, as if it is none of our business.

As a result, domestic violence is still a severely under-reported crime and some critics claim mandatory arrest policies have aggravated this problem. VAWA policies require police officers responding to domestic violence calls to arrest alleged abusers if there is probable cause to believe assaults have taken place. The intent was to encourage a cultural change in law enforcement, which has a long history of declining to intervene in domestic violence situations. But some feel mandatory arrest discourages some women from reporting because they fear their partner—sometimes a family’s sole earner—will be automatically arrested and thrown in jail. Loss of income and/or fear of retribution are real threats. In fact, a 2007 Harvard study found that the rate of intimate partner homicide was higher in states that have mandatory arrest laws.

cops arrest domestic abuser

Some feminist say mandatory arrest laws do nothing to address the causes of intimate partner violence: unemployment and economic distress. Even worse, mandatory arrest laws remove the preferences of abused women from a process that can leave them financially strapped and worried that the state will take custody of their children. “When you institute a mandatory arrest policy, the hope is that you will control the police and make sure they respond,” says Donna Coker, a former battered women’s shelter worker and now a law professor at the University of Miami. “But too often, it has the unintended consequence of increasing the potential for state control of marginalized women.”

While the VAWA may not be perfect, it is clear that it is needed. Critics say the VAWA is premised on the theory that violence against women is a product of sexism and patriarchy — “men’s desire to keep women down” and the sexes’ unequal social status and could be much more effective if it focused on the proven causes of violence.

Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence says it’s clear why the legislation focuses so squarely on law enforcement. VAWA was originally part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, one of a series of “tough on crime” laws enacted in the 1990s when the violent crime rate in the U.S. was four times higher than it is now. “We’re lucky it’s got something beyond law enforcement money,” says Gandy, a former prosecutor. Every year, more than $100 million in VAWA funding is devoted to non-law enforcement priorities, including transitional housing, special assistance for victims in rural communities and the disabled, and civil legal assistance. “We’re not looking to shift money from law enforcement to services,” says Gandy. “We’re just looking for more money for both.”  

Womens Rights - When sleeping women wake - header


The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides confidential and free lifesaving tools and immediate support seven days a week. Callers to the Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) can expect highly trained experienced advocates to offer compassionate support, crisis intervention information and referral services in over 170 languages.


Also in 2013, the IRS extended deadline for ‘innocent spouse’ tax relief application

In order to help victims of domestic violence and others, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service extended the amount of time taxpayers can apply for its “innocent spouse” relief program which stops the collection of taxes in certain situations.

The program aims to assist taxpayers – including single mothers – who have filed tax returns as married couples but later face a tax bill. The applicants are usually people who did not know their spouse had accumulated a tax liability, which the “innocent” spouses are also responsible for as part of a married tax filing.

Under these rules, taxpayers would have up to 10 years to apply for the program and stop a tax collection process.

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