FACT SHEET: Standing Up for Women’s Civil Rights, 20 Years After VAWA
“The original law had three simple goals: make streets safer for women; make homes safer for women; and protect women’s civil rights.” – Senator Biden, 1990
“In its totality, the Violence Against Women Act was the first federal law that directly held violence against women as a violation of basic civil rights and fundamental human dignity.” –Vice President Biden, 2013
Nearly 20 years ago, the Vice President first brought to national attention the need to end domestic violence and sexual assault by championing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Today, recognizing the 20th Anniversary of VAWA, the Vice President is taking two significant actions as part of the Administration’s ongoing commitment to put an end to this senseless violence.
First, the Vice President is announcing a Summit on Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Women, which will bring together legal scholars, state and local prosecutors, and the Department of Justice to find a way to let survivors sue their abusers in federal court—which VAWA allowed but the Supreme Court rejected.
Second, the Vice President’s office is releasing a comprehensive report detailing how far we’ve come since VAWA first passed while noting there are many challenges ahead.
Twenty years after VAWA first became law, it has helped change a prevailing culture from a refusal to intervene to a responsibility to act – where violence against women is no longer accepted as a societal secret and where we all understand that one case is too many. There are still many challenges to overcome, and this week’s anniversary is a reminder of the important work ahead.
The report, “1 is 2 many,” shows the marked progress in VAWA’s twenty year existence:
- Lives saved: Yearly domestic violence rates dropped dramatically—by 64% from 1993 to 2010. From 1993 to 2012, the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner declined 26% for women and 48% for men.
- Money saved: VAWA has helped save the country billions of dollars. One study estimated $12.6 billion in net averted social costs in the first 6 years alone.
- Justice gained, via higher prosecution rates: Evidence collected by VAWA-funded specialized police units is more likely to be useful for prosecution—meaning higher rates of prosecution, conviction, and sentencing. And specialized domestic violence prosecution programs generally translate to the highest rates of successful prosecution.
- Better services: Victims who receive comprehensive services and advocacy like those funded by VAWA are more likely to achieve their goals of safety, healing, and economic security than women not receiving such support and services.
- Improved tools: Forensic evidence collection has been improved by special sexual assault nurse examiner programs and communities that are testing old rape kits are apprehending serial offenders.
Still, as the report shows, many challenges remain:
- Rates of violence are too high: We know this violence is preventable—and zero-tolerance must be our aim.
- Young women are at risk: If one in five young women suffered from a disease, we as a nation would find a solution to that problem; but when it comes to violence against young women, we have known this statistic for 20 years.
- Bias still exists in the justice system: No one says that men who are robbed or slashed went to the wrong place or wore the wrong clothes. At the workplace or in schools, the law calls these stereotypes by the name of sex discrimination and inequality; so they should bear this name in our criminal justice system, too.
- Health and social costs are high: Violence in the home may beget more violence in the home and the streets; this violence distorts the lives and minds of children; and resulting health costs are enormous, even though small investments in preventing this violence can have enormous rewards.
The need for a new look at a civil rights remedy:
In calling for a renewed national effort, the Summit on Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Women will highlight the connection between sexual assault (as well as sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination) cases and civil rights violations. The remedy is important for several reasons:
- Sexual discrimination violates the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court has long held that sex discrimination, including sexual violence, is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Despite that, the persistence of violence against women remains and the state justice system’s response can be discriminatory. We must bring together legal scholars, state and local prosecutors, and the Department of Justice to revisit the civil rights remedy that VAWA included, but the Supreme Court rejected.
- Only a federal civil rights remedy can provide equal protection throughout the nation. When state justice systems fail to respond to this violence, it violates equal protection.
- For example, the Department of Justice has done laudable work finding patterns of sex bias in the handling of rape cases in Montana and domestic violence cases in cities.
- The Department’s findings included: failure to investigate domestic violence cases, declining to prosecute non-stranger rape, gender-based assumptions and stereotypes influencing responses to reports of sexual assault, and using “blaming” questions and stereotypes in victim interviews.
The Obama Administration’s Record on Violence against Women: Highlights:
- In 2011, Vice President Biden kicked off the 1 is 2 Many campaign focusing on the high rates of dating violence and sexual assault experienced by teens and young women. Through 1 is 2 Many, the National Dating Abuse Helpline expanded to digital services, and new mobile apps were created to help prevent sexual assault and support survivors.
- In 2011, the Department of Education sent new guidance to schools, colleges, and universities about their obligations under federal civil rights law to respond to and prevent sexual assault.
- Leading by example, in 2012 President Obama directed federal agencies to develop policies to address domestic violence in the federal workforce and to assist survivors.
- In 2013, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Holder announced a new initiative to prevent domestic violence homicides. Using evidence-based lethality assessment tools, the initiative identifies victims at high risk and links them with immediate services.
- On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the third reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act creating new protections for LGBT victims and Native American women. The legislation also expands housing protections for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, and directs resources towards improving the criminal justice response to sexual assault.
- On January 22, 2014, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. On April 29, the Task Force released its first report with new recommendations for schools to prevent and respond to sexual assault and new steps by federal agencies to improve enforcement of federal laws. The work of the Task Force is ongoing.
- Every year, the Justice Department administers more than $400 million to VAWA grant programs around the country.