It’s Time to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act
By Angela R. Gover & Angela M. Moore | May 3, 2021
NOTE: Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The landmark Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was the first federal legislation in the United States to comprehensively address the endemic problems of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. At its core, VAWA transformed the criminal justice system’s federal response to these issues through a combination of enforcement, services, and mandates designed to enhance victim safety and perpetrator accountability.
But although VAWA was designed for reauthorization every five years, reauthorization has not occurred since 2013.
Stalled in the Senate
On March 17, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.1620 (the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021) with bipartisan support. President Biden applauded the House passage and urged the Senate to follow suit, citing VAWA as transforming the nation’s response to violence against women and noting the improvements made by each reauthorization. Ironically, the House passage came just one day after a mass shooting in Atlanta took the lives of eight victims, including seven women, six of whom were of Asian descent.
The Atlanta shootings were a painful reminder of what can happen when gun violence, misogyny, and racial hatred collide, aided by the impulsive acquisition of a firearm.
The Atlanta shootings were a painful reminder of what can happen when gun violence, misogyny, and racial hatred collide, aided by the impulsive acquisition of a firearm (the perpetrator purchased the gun he used on the same day he committed the mass murders). While it is impossible to conclusively say whether a waiting period would have prevented the Atlanta rampage, a 2017 study found that waiting periods for firearm purchases of just a few days reduce overall gun homicides by approximately 17%. Additionally, almost half of all women murdered in the U.S. are killed by a former or current intimate partner, with over half of these homicides resulting from gun violence.
Yet, the most contentious provision in the VAWA 2021 update concerns the closure of the “boyfriend loophole” that allows firearm access under federal law to perpetrators convicted of domestic violence against current or former dating partners. In addition, the current reauthorization would bar individuals with convictions for misdemeanor stalking from owning firearms. Although closing the boyfriend loophole through VAWA 2021 may enhance the legislation’s ability to save women’s lives, the inclusion of this (or any) firearm provision continues to endanger VAWA’s reauthorization. Provisions around tightened access to firearms for certain offenders have prompted strong objections from the majority of conservatives in Congress.
Intersecting Crises Add Urgency
Today our nation finds itself grappling with compounding, intersectional crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID’s economic consequences have disproportionally impacted vulnerable communities, at the same time that indications point to an overall increase in the rates and severity of intimate partner violence. Moreover, increased isolation and financial hardships present additional barriers to obtaining victim services.
Today our nation finds itself grappling with compounding, intersectional crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors make passage of VAWA reauthorization even more crucial and timely.
These factors make passage of VAWA reauthorization even more crucial and timely. In addition to closing the “boyfriend loophole,” the 2021 version of the VAWA bill:
- Reiterates protections for gay, bisexual, and transgender victims, including access for transgender women to domestic violence shelters and allowances for transgender victims to serve in prison populations matching their gender identities;
- Allows tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal members for acts of violence against women on tribal lands;
- Includes cultural and language specific victim services through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to meet a wider range of underserved victims;
- Incorporates housing vouchers for victims who need to relocate quickly for their safety;
- Provides unemployment insurance for victims who must leave their jobs to stay safe;
- Increases funding for victim services and educational programs including rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and other nonprofit organizations serving survivors;
- Grants medical services for violence against women;
- And includes an amendment addressing revenge porn (the nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images of an individual).
Despite three previous updates that improved and strengthened VAWA over the past 25 years, demand for critical victim services such as housing, shelter, medical care, and legal resources continues to outstrip supply.
A Far-Reaching Legacy of Support
Since 1994, The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women has awarded a total of $7.6 billion in grants enabling jurisdictions to create and implement specialized law enforcement units, prosecution units, and dedicated courts. These grants are designed to enhance victim safety and autonomy, increase the availability of victim services, and improve offender accountability.
OVW’s discretionary grant programs serve approximately 250,000 victims every year, and the formula grant programs serve more than 400,000 victims annually. OVW provides more than two million housing and shelter bed nights to victims and children each year. OVW grants also provide legal assistance to 56,000 victims annually. OVW funded technical assistance providers train almost 12,000 nurses who provide medical forensic care. Every year through its civil legal assistance programs, OVW practitioners assist victims in securing more than 200,000 protection orders, and OVW funds over 200 prosecutors’ and over 300 law enforcement officers’ salaries.
With VAWA funding, DOJ’s National Institute of Justice has awarded over $130 million for research addressing violence against women. Researchers have examined various forms of violence against women, including dating violence, sexual violence, domestic violence, and stalking. NIJ has also used VAWA funding to study promising practices for forensic sexual assault medical exams and for testing the backlog of sexual assault kits. NIJ has provided a steady stream of funding for researchers to examine the nature and scope of violence against women and to evaluate interventions and strategies focused on these crimes.
We Can’t Afford to Wait
President Biden has made reauthorizing and strengthening VAWA a top domestic priority. Community-based programs that provide direct services to victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking heavily rely on VAWA for operating costs. Continued support and funding of VAWA would sustain prevention and intervention services and provide the criminal justice system with resources to maintain a coordinated, comprehensive response to violence against women.
Without VAWA funding, individual states would bear more of the financial costs associated with crime and victimization, including medical expenses, lost wages, and quality of life expenses.
Without VAWA funding, individual states would bear more of the financial costs associated with crime and victimization, including medical expenses, mental health care costs, victim and social service expenses, victims’ lost wages, and quality of life expenses. These are costs state budgets cannot easily absorb and sustain.
VAWA’s future continues to remain uncertain until the legislation is passed by the U.S. Senate.
Angela R. Gover is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at University of Colorado School of Public Affairs. Angela M. Moore is a senior science advisor in the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Technology at the National Institute of Justice.