On September 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law. This groundbreaking legislation was the result of many years of dedication by women’s advocates and the incredible leadership of then-Senator Biden.
I was working as an advocate in Florida, and I remember it well. For those of us on the frontlines, that was the day everything changed. No longer did we stand alone in the fight to end rape and battering. Finally, we had validation from the highest levels of our government that violence against women was a national crisis and a high priority. From that day forward, our local hotlines were inundated with calls from victims who felt they could finally step forward and seek help.
Over the next decade, advocates and policy-makers developed powerful alliances to implement the new law. In Florida, VAWA funding helped start domestic violence task forces in rural communities where services were nonexistent. In the isolated mountains of Tennessee, VAWA brought medical and crisis services to rape victims. In Michigan, legal advocates helped victims obtain protective orders. In West Virginia, in the first case prosecuted under VAWA’s new federal crimes, an offender was convicted of interstate domestic violence and kidnapping after beating his wife to unconsciousness and driving her around in the trunk of his car for six days while she was critically injured.
Today, you can see VAWA in action in local communities all across the country. Through programs funded by VAWA, police officers and prosecutors are trained to understand the needs of victims, specialized law enforcement units investigate these crimes, and transitional housing programs help victims rebuild their lives. As a result, annual rates of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent since the passage of the Act.
As important as the successes of VAWA have been, they are at the same time insufficient. Today, three women are still killed every day as a result of domestic violence. Sexual assault remains at epidemic levels in this country: 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped in their lifetimes, and the overwhelming majority were victimized before the age of 25. Teens and young adults suffer the highest rates of dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. And domestic violence takes its toll on our economy as well. Even by conservative estimates, domestic violence costs our economy more than 8 billion dollars a year in lost productivity and health care costs alone.
For all of these reasons, its unconscionable that Congress has yet to finalize a bill to reauthorize and strengthen VAWA. We need a newly invigorated VAWA that will help us reduce domestic violence homicides, improve the criminal justice response to sexual assault, and take bold new steps to prevent dating violence and sexual assault on college campuses. And, we need a VAWA that protects every victim.
On that exciting day 18 years ago, those of us on the frontlines envisioned that we would keep moving forward. President Obama and Vice President Biden have kept us moving forward from the White House.
Now, Congress needs to do their part. The women of this country deserve nothing less.