"The struggle for women's rights, and the task of creating a new United Nations, able to promote peace and the values which nurture and sustain it, are one and the same. Today - more than ever - the cause of women is the cause of all humanity."
Those were the words of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali before the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was passed in 1993. A year later, the United States would pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), joining global efforts to eradicate gender-based violence and inequality.
Violence Against Women Act
The Violence Against Women Act was co-sponsored by Senators Joe Biden and Orrin Hatch in 1994. VAWA addressed an array of crimes that were steadily increasing and keeping women from achieving their full potential, like domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and femicide. The Act received bipartisan support in Congress.
During 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that there were 2.1 million intimate partner victimizations, defined as “abuse within the context of an intimate partner relationship” such as dating or marriage. This number had been steadily growing since the early 90s. The lack of resources for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors hurt survivors’ mental health and added to medical and economic national concerns. As rates of domestic violence grew, so did medical debt, job instability, and homelessness. Recognizing that they could no longer continue to ignore women's well-being, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act.
VAWA tackled issues of gender-based violence by providing a clear framework for preventing crime and pursuing justice. It established a complex collaboration between social service agencies, the criminal justice system, researchers, and non-governmental organizations. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services allocate almost 500 million dollars every year to make the work of those different parties possible. Accordingly, the implementation of VAWA ensured the development of Federal programs to prosecute interstate crimes and to enforce interstate protection orders. It also provided legitimacy and monetary support to shelters for victims and rape crisis centers.
Consequently, the passing of VAWA signified a new, cooperative response to the aforementioned patriarchal issues that had previously neglected the safety of women. In order to keep accountability and ensure a successful implementation of the bill, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) was established in 1995.
State and local feminist organizations, in collaboration with the National Organization for Women, ensured the reauthorization of VAWA in 2000, 2005, and 2015. In those three instances, the bill was holistically updated to include the protection of immigrant victims of gender-based violence, prevention of eviction for low-income victims, the development of violence-prevention programs in languages other than English, and care for LGBTQ+ individuals. The new focus on marginalized communities, especially with regards to immigrants, would eventually gain VAWA opposition from Republicans in Congress.
However, as of 2020, the National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that the results of VAWA and its updates have been nothing but positive. More victims are able to report violence, hotlines exist in about 170 languages, and the implementation of over 660 state laws has helped protect the well-being of civilians, especially women.
The presence of violent power structures in society poses a threat to the safety of everyone, and especially women of color. Legislation like VAWA seeks to ensure that justice is brought to the many victims of dating violence, domestic violence, stalkers, sexual assault, and many other crimes.
Additionally, VAWA’s budget for research is the first step in understanding and preventing the systemic roots of gender-based violence. Though much has changed since its 1994 enactment, women are still affected by violence and harassment, demonstrating that there is still much to be done before equality is achieved.