ARTICLE:
Violence Against Women Act of 1994

By: Michele Hawes

          The general purpose of policy in society is to codify an issue.  Policy provides official recognition to a problem so that action can be taken to reduce or eliminate its impact on society.  For decades domestic violence was a family problem that was not discussed openly.  It was considered a taboo topic and little was done to prevent it, assist the victim, or prosecute the perpetrators.  Violence against women was shielded by fear, shame, and a culture of male privilege.  Domestic abuse and rape in America were not perceived or prosecuted with consistency between states or legal jurisdictions.  Today, domestic violence is recognized as a menace that impacts all sectors of society and families from all walks of life.  As domestic violence has emerged from the shadows, policy has continued to evolve to keep pace with society’s growing understanding and recognition of the problem. 
          The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 brought federal power and support to the effort to reduce crimes against women.  The VAWA was an especially important policy as it brought national attention to the abuse that women had to deal with and helped address the disparity in the state laws.  In addition to establishing federal punishments for crimes against women, the VAWA established funding for hotlines, training for victims, and improvements in locations where the crimes were frequently perpetrated, such as public transportation and parks.  It included provisions for training of law enforcement and court personnel to help ensure that victims’ rights were protected while perpetrators were appropriately prosecuted.  Most importantly, the VAWA was the foundation for all the local and state policies that were to follow (“Violence Against Women Act of 1994”, 2013). 
          Violence against women continued in America for a number of reasons.  Often the victim and perpetrator were related, so it was considered a private family matter not discussed openly.  The cloak of privacy that shielded the perpetrator was aided by state and local laws that were inconsistently enforced. This was due in part to a lack of training for law enforcement, a court system not prepared to support the victims, and a reluctance to interfere in domestic issues.  The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was the first comprehensive legislation that not only criminalized violence against women at the federal level, but more importantly provided the means to proactively reduce violence against women. This was accomplished by improving “the criminal justice system response to violence against women” and ensuring “that victims and their families have access to the services they need to achieve safety and rebuild their lives” (Factsheet, n.d.). 
          Fortunately, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 did not only lay out specific guidelines for states, it established funding for them.  The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) was established to implement the programs mandated by the VAWA.  A permanent function of the Department of Justice, the OVW “provides financial and technical assistance to communities to help them create programs, policies, and practices to end sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.” The OVW manages grants awarded to “local, state and tribal governments, courts, non-profit organizations, community-based organizations, secondary schools, institutions of higher education, and state and tribal coalitions” for programs to reduce violence against women.  The OVW has disbursed over nine billion dollars in funding used to train law enforcement, provide victims legal services, shelter, and counseling as well as improvements to the courts (USDOJ, 2017).
          The shortcomings of the VAWA have been partially addressed by subsequent amendments and reauthorization bills.  Significant additions have included special provisions for undocumented immigrants and genetic testing for rape victims.  College campuses have been recognized as environments where violence against women often goes unreported.  The victims are often away from home for the first time and easily intimidated into silence.  Campus officials are reluctant to report unsubstantiated rape claims for fear their institution will get a reputation for being unsafe for female students.  The VAWA Reauthorization made specific requirements for campus reporting and awareness of victim rights and support services (Whitehouse Archives, n.d.).
          The VAWA has been modified to provide support for groups that the 1994 Act overlooked – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and young teens.  LGBT victims of domestic violence were being denied services because of the non-traditional nature of their domestic relationships.  The VAWA specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or identification.  The amendment also provides funding for schools and youth organizations to develop programs to help prevent sexual assault among young people.  The VAWA also recognizes the special cultural challenges of Native American victims of domestic violence and resolves jurisdictional issues and support for prosecution.  The importance for safe housing for victims of domestic violence has also been addressed during reauthorization (Congressional Digest, 2012).  Each new reauthorization will have to address the changing needs of society and the demands of the public.
          The reporting of crimes of violence against women continues to climb.  While these rising numbers might seem to indicate that the VAWA is not working, just the opposite is true.   This should not be construed as an indication that the rate of violence against women in America is increasing.  The crime is being de-stigmatized as victims become more aware that they are not responsible for the assaults they endure. As law enforcement, religious organizations, healthcare providers, and non-profit agencies work more closely together, more accurate results will be reported.   The public has a greater awareness of what for generations was a crime hidden by fear and shame.  This may be the greatest accomplishments of the VAWA.  American society cannot improve if it turns a blind eye to the suffering of any segment of its population.  Violence against women cannot be eradicated if any portion of the American public view it as acceptable behavior.
          The ultimate outcome of the VAWA is impossible to predict.  Complete eradication of violence against women is probably as unattainable as world peace within our lifetimes.  However, just because the end game may never be reached, that does not mean that nothing can be done.  The VAWA of 1994 was an attempt to alter American society on par with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery.  The VAWA by comparison is a relatively new law and its work is hardly done.  The VAWA should be considered a ladder that is being built and extended as new heights are reached.  With each iteration, America will get one rung closer to the goal of a country where no woman has to be in fear of violence.

References:
Factsheet: The Violence Against Women Act. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/vawa_factsheet.pdf

Legislative Background on Violence Against Women: Recent Action by Congress on Reauthorizing VAWA. (2012). Congressional Digest, 91(6), 170.
U. S. Department of Justice (USDOJ). (2017). About the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ovw/about-office

Violence Against Women Act of 1994. (2013, April 13). Retrieved from http://legcounsel.house.gov/Comps/DOMVIOL.PDF

Whitehouse Archives. (n.d.). Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act Key Provisions in S. 47. Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/vawa_improvements_1_pager.pdf
1. The VAWA brought national attention to the abuse that many women were enduring.

2. The VAWA established funding for hotlines, training for victims, and improvements in locations where the crimes were frequently perpetrated.

3. The Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) was established to implement the programs mandated by the VAWA.

4. The VAWA specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or identification.

5. The VAWA has expanded to include the issues of rape, stalking, and the special needs of the LGBT community, Native Americans, and teen victims of sexual assault.