How The Country Has Changed Under The Violence Against Women Act

Supporters cheer as President Barack Obama signs a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH
Supporters cheer as President Barack Obama signs a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH

The 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act — landmark legislation that was signed into law by President Clinton on September 13, 1994 — comes at a particularly prescient moment, as the country is engaged in a national conversation about the NFL’s responsibility to adequately respond to incidences of domestic abuse perpetrated by its football players.

As all attention has been focused on the video of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, as well as the NFL’s botched response to the surveillance tape evidence, it can be hard to feel like the country is taking any meaningful steps toward taking violence against women seriously. But, while there’s certainly a lot of work left to be done, the national legislation aimed at supporting victims of domestic violence has changed the landscape in some significant ways.

Here’s a look at how we’ve progressed in the past two decades:

We have more resources to address and prevent domestic abuse.


The whole point of VAWA is to provide more institutional resources for domestic violence victims. In order to accomplish that, the law expanded the network of rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters across the country, as well as established the National Domestic Violence Hotline. VAWA also provides funding for efforts to prevent crime, like expanding youth education programs to teach kids about what constitutes dating violence, implementing safety measures on public transportation, and requiring the government to conduct more research into domestic violence so we’ll have a better understanding of the scope of the problem.

Fewer people are becoming victims of violence.

According to data from the Department of Justice, domestic violence rates declined 64 percent between 1993 and 2010. And the rate of women being murdered men in single victim/single offender situations — often characteristic of intimate partner violence — dropped by 26 percent over a similar time period, between 1996 and 2012. One study attempting to figure out why domestic violence rates dropped so dramatically in the 1990s attributed the decline partly to VAWA, which “has been an important impetus for funding in the area of civil legal assistance.”

We’re more comfortable talking about domestic abuse.

“Even just 20 years ago, violence against women in America was an epidemic few people wanted to talk about, let alone do something about,” Vice President Joe Biden, who introduced VAWA and has championed the legislation ever since, pointed out in an op-ed published this week to mark VAWA’s anniversary. But that’s slowly started to change. Victims are becoming more comfortable reaching out; the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received over 3 million calls since 1996, and 92 percent of those callers say it’s their first call for help. Violence against women is no longer considered to be a “private family matter,” and is now widely regarded as something that requires a public solution. According to the advocacy group Futures Without Violence, before the 1980s, there were about 150 articles in major newspapers covering the issue of domestic violence. In the decades of the 2000s, there were more than 7,000.

We’re better at recognizing the diversity of survivors’ experiences.

The latest iteration of VAWA made some important updates to the original 1994 law. It expanded protections for Native American women by giving tribes more authority to prosecute domestic abuse, protected LGBT individuals from being discriminated against in shelters, and ensured that immigrants’ legal status can’t be exploited by their abusers. It also expanded the definition of violence to specifically include crimes like cyberstalking. Those new provisions were a sticking point for many Republicans, who refused to pass the expanded version VAWA in 2013 and allowed the law to lapse in the first time since its 1994 passage. Last February, Congress finally reauthorized VAWA with the protections for diverse groups of victims intact.

We’ve enacted more legal protections for victims.

Before VAWA, we didn’t have a criminal justice system that was set up to handle these issues. Sexual assault and domestic violence weren’t even included in the federal criminal code. VAWA strengthened the federal punishments for those crimes — which led the way for states to reform their own laws in this area so that, for example, spousal rape is now treated just as seriously as stranger rape across the country. VAWA funds also train over 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges every year so they’ll be able to better respond to cases involving intimate partner violence, abuse, and assault. And, thanks to the federal legislation, victims’ past sexual behavior is not admissible in trials where they’re accusing someone else of sexual misconduct.