The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was introduced in the United States Congress in January 1991 by Senator Joseph Biden (b.1942) of Delaware. The bill was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and was signed into law by former president Bill Clinton (b.1946) in September 1994.
VAWA allows people who have been subjected to acts of violence because of their gender to pursue their victimizers in a federal court for sex discrimination. Among the provisions outlined in VAWA are the creation of a national domestic violence hotline, increasing the funding for the shelters for abused women and the introduction of new criminal penalties for domestic violence. Sentences given for certain types of sexual-motivated violence, like battery and rape, are also increased under the Act. The law provides that states are obliged to enforce protection orders issued by other states.
The bill was passed in the Congress despite the fierce opposition of the Republicans who tried to abolish domestic violence provisions from the Act, arguing that funding them would be a waste of government money. Congress heard testimony of numerous witnesses before passing the bill. The legislators heard some startling facts, including that three out of four American women were likely to be victims of violent crimes during their lives; that one quarter of convicted rapists do not go to prison; while further evidence revealed that less than 1 percent of victims of rape received damages and that nearly 50 percent of rape victims had to leave their jobs due to the impact of the crime.
Although the VAWA managed to get the necessary support for most of its provisions, some of them were highly controversial and were later challenged. An example included the provision creating a civil rights remedy for victims of gender-motivated violence. Opponents to this provision claimed that such a remedy would force the federal courts to deal with issues traditionally and more adequately tackled by the state courts, such as domestic relations and other family matters. The controversial provision was scrapped as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2000, on the grounds that the Congress did not have the authority to enact such a measure.
Some critics questioned the language of the VAWA, especially the requirement for victims to prove the crime was not random and was motivated by animus (intention) based on gender. One of the main contributions of VAWA is that it managed to direct a great deal of public attention to the problem of violence against women. As a result of this law, a special federal office was created to manage VAWA grant programs. This involved conducting studies and providing information to the public about gender-based violence.
In 2000, Congress reauthorized the original VAWA provisions and authorized a number of new provisions. VAWA 2000 endorsed the grant programs established by the original VAWA and subsequent legislation. Among the new programs authorized were addressing abuse of elder people and violence against women with disabilities. The law also provided for supervised visitations in cases of domestic violence. VAWA 2000 also beefed up the 1994 Act by bolstering protections for battered immigrants, survivors of sexual assault and victims of dating violence. In addition, the new law allowed domestic violence victims to obtain custody orders in other states, avoiding a return to a jurisdiction where they might face danger.
Congress again reauthorized VAWA in December 2005 and former president George W. Bush (b.1946) signed VAWA 2005 into law in January 2006. The new law included measures for crime prevention, like offering support to young families at risk for violence. VAWA also included provisions protecting victims of unfair eviction, as well as strengthening the response to violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. In addition, the law established the Sexual Assault Services Program, dedicated to providing direct services to victims of sexual crimes.
Other provisions under the Act included providing for the training of health care sector employees so that they could improve their response to violence against women. In addition, the law created a National Resource Center on Workplace Responses to help employers improve the safety of workplaces and provide adequate support to victimized employees. A major step of VAWA 2005 was the broadening of the scope of the provisions to cover children and teenagers who became victims of domestic or sexual violence. Non-governmental organizations will be lobbying hard in the future for a swift reauthorization of the law.