The Violence Against Women Act Passes Not a Moment Too Soon

Yesterday the US House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 (VAWA, HR 1620). And, not a moment too soon. This almost identical measure passed the House in the last Congress, and languished in then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Senate. Typically reauthorized every five years, this time it took eight years. It is especially critical for the Senate to swiftly pass this bill and send it to the president’s desk given that we are in the middle of pandemic that brings with it economic instability at a time when our country is grappling with issues of race. HR 1620 addresses these issues and includes necessary enhancements to improve and expand the landmark 1994 law.

Importantly, the measure includes key provisions that would help stop abusers and stalkers from obtaining firearms. We know that domestic violence claims at least 2,000 lives each year. Most intimate partner homicides, in which a person targets a spouse or partner, are committed with firearms.

Indeed, native women are victimized at rates higher than any other population in the United States. It is estimated that 56% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes and 55% will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes. Forty-eight percent will experience stalking. HR 1620 expands the jurisdiction of tribal authorities over non-Indians who commit a crime in Indian country. And, the bill preserves dedicated funding for grants to States, territories, and Indian Tribes for sexual assault services programs as well as dedicated funding for rural domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and child abuse enforcement assistance.

For communities of color, economic insecurity contributes to and combines with isolation, racism and discrimination, limited education opportunities, and language barriers, and immigration status to shape how women of color experience and respond to the four crimes. Black women still experience the highest rates of homicide related to intimate partner violence compared to other racial and ethnic populations and the House passed bill includes dedicated funding for the Culturally Specific Services Program. The killings of Asian women in Atlanta this week and the misogyny that drove it coming on the heels of passage of HR 1620, with increased funding for Culturally Specific Communities, reminds us of how much remains to be done.

And, safe housing is among the most pressing concerns for survivors who have left or are planning to leave an abusive relationship. Thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence survivors become homeless at some point in their lives. Among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence. Further, domestic violence is costly, resulting in $4.9 billion dollars annually in direct costs: medical expenses, 70%; lost productivity, 15%; and lost lifetime earnings, 15%. Ninety-five percent of incidents occur in households with incomes below $75,000. To address these pressing issues, HR 1620 would strengthen protections for survivors in public housing and provide economic security assistance.

The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have only further increased the risks of abuse and barriers to safety, with data showing a rise in intimate partner violence as we are quarantined.

Thanks to Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Jerry Nadler (D-NY), HR 1620 addresses all of this and more. Every time they have reauthorized VAWA, Congress has made vital, and often groundbreaking, improvements. This time is no exception.

VAWA is President’s Biden signature legislative achievement from his time in the Senate, and it has transformed America’s response to the four crimes. Since 1994, when VAWA was first passed, the rate of domestic violence has decreased 63%. And, VAWA-funded prevention programming has been empirically demonstrated to reduce sexual violence. Between 2014 and 2016, VAWA funding provided more than one million victim services for survivors of the four crimes, including almost 2 million shelter nights, 600,000 hotline calls, victim advocacy for almost 300,000 unique individuals, and legal services for almost 100,000 survivors. Every six months in that period, VAWA funding served an average of 112,000 primary survivors and their children.

At the Vice President’s residence with then Vice President Biden in October 2015.

Yet, the rates of violence are still far too high: On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million individuals. The numbers can be even higher for members of transgender and gender-queer communities. Additionally, dating partners are without protections afforded to other current or former intimate partners. Although stalking is a crime according to the federal government, the classification varies state to state, leaving survivors vulnerable. Sexual violence, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, continues to be a pervasive problem on college campuses, in the US military, and in the workplace.

Our work is far from over, but yesterday we got a few steps closer to providing safety and security for so many at risk. We must continue to meet the needs of all survivors — LGBTQ, older adult, survivors with disabilities, immigrants, Native people — through this effective and proven law. While impacting more than just women, during Women’s History Month, the Senate must honor the legacy of this groundbreaking law and immediately reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Survivors can’t wait.

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