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The Landmark Violence Against Women Act

Twenty five years ago, then-Senator Joe Biden led the effort to pass his landmark legislation to end violence against women into law. The Violence Against Women Act has two goals: to make women safer, and protect women’s civil rights. 

Joe Biden first introduced the law in 1990, when domestic violence was considered a family matter and few in Congress wanted to work on the issue. Over the next three years, Senator Biden used his role on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to hear directly from survivors during hours of testimony about their experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault and from experts armed with reports and data.

In 1993, Senator Biden wrote, “Through this process, I have become convinced that violence against women reflects as much a failure of our nation’s collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation’s laws and regulations.” That moral outrage fueled Biden’s relentless drive to pass a bill even in the face of opposition over the years from a litany of individuals including the Bush Administration, the then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and conservatives in Congress. After four years of work, the Act passed in September 1994 with significant bipartisan support.

But Biden didn’t stop at final passage of the Act. For nearly three decades, Joe Biden has worked so that the ambition of the Violence Against Women Act didn’t get lost in bureaucracy or bogged down by partisanship. Instead, his legislation has become a cornerstone for the movement to end violence against women. Since 1994, Biden led efforts to ensure Congress passed legislation renewing and strengthened the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) three times: in 2000, 2005, and 2013. Each time, the VAWA reauthorization upped the ante and ensured that especially vulnerable communities – from Native women to to undocumented immigrants to LGBTQ individuals – are included in the Act.

The Violence Against Women Act has worked. Between the Violence Against Women Act’s  enactment in 1994 and 2011, serious victimization by an intimate partner declined by 72%. But, there is still more work to do. 

Taking the Violence Against Women Act Global

In 2007, then-Senator Biden expanded on his legacy addressing violence against women and girls, with the introduction of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). Violence against women and girls of all ages is a global epidemic: from harassment on public transportation in Southeast Asia, to trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, to “honor” killings in the Middle East, to the use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One in three women worldwide will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime, and in some countries, that’s true for 70% of women.

IVAWA provided a framework for the United States to address gender-based violence around the world through a comprehensive approach that promoted legal reform, changes in social norms, health and safety, and access to educational and economic opportunities. The bill also sought to address gender-based violence in humanitarian crises and conflict settings by including a focus on peacekeeper training and data collection. 

While IVAWA was never enacted, the Obama-Biden administration used executive action to implement much of IVAWA and its comprehensive approach to gender-based violence. With a series of State Department strategies and plans on women, peace, and security; adolescent girls; women’s economic empowerment; and gender-based violence, the Administration focused its diplomatic, development, and even military efforts on promoting the health, safety, and empowerment of women and girls around the world.

As powerful as the Administration’s programs and policies were, one of the best tools the Administration had in persuading other countries to focus on this issue was its own legacy with the Violence Against Women Act, which has given the United States credibility to address gender-based violence on the international stage. This landmark legislation continues to serve as an example to other countries that progress is more than possible when a country invests in legal, cultural, and community change. 

More Work To Do

Now is no time to turn back, or even to simply sit still. Today, as many as 1 in 3 women in the United States are subjected to physical violence, sexual violence and/or stalking by an partner at some point in their lives. The rate is even higher for women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, and transgender people

Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act of 2019, which includes significant, forward-looking improvements and innovations proposed by advocates, survivors, lawyers and experts, and prosecutors who are in the trenches protecting and supporting survivors. But Senator McConnell is refusing to bring the bill to the floor in the Senate. There’s no reason the Senate shouldn’t pass this reauthorization now.

In the coming months, Vice President Biden will release his plan to build on the Violence Against Women Act, make women safer, and protect women’s civil rights.