Last month marked the 22nd anniversary of the Violence Against Women (VAW) Act, a movement started by a grassroots effort in the late 80s and early 90s and carried on by then-Senator Joe Biden. A long overdue bill, the VAW Act was designed to protect women from domestic violence, rape, dating violence and stalking. It marked the first comprehensive federal legislative package designed to end violence against women, and it served as a triumph for women’s groups that lobbied hard to persuade Congress for change. Since the passage of the VAW Act, from law enforcement to victim services to Capitol Hill, there has been a paradigm shift in how the issue of violence against women is addressed.
No doubt the intent was good, but 22 years later men are still ignoring boundaries, overpowering girls on college campuses and getting only a slap on the wrist for the heinous acts they commit. And many girls and women are seeing themselves as powerless victims, a trend that only helps to perpetuate the cycle.
What message is this sending our children who represent our future?
One in every three women will experience a violent act in their lifetimes. A staggering and brutally personal statistic for some, but a distant, nebulous, almost surreal one for others. This is one of the problems—the cavernous gap between those facing abuse and those who can choose to ignore it and turn a blind eye to the ugliness, and the mindset that helped foster it. Bridging that gap through education should be at the forefront of discussion.
There is hope, and the stats are not all negative. This sense of hope is important to impart in any discussion. Since enacting the VAW Act on September 13, 1994, some good things have happened like:
· The National Domestic Violence Hotline was established. This enabled victims of abuse to reach out and get the help they need.
· The rate of intimate partner violence declined 67% between 1993 and 2010.
· States followed suit by reforming their laws to better protect women, i.e. making stalking a crime.
· Many states have passed laws prohibiting polygraphing of rape victims.
· Communication and publicity of worldwide atrocities has become more transparent.
· Funding was provided for victims of abuse and evidentiary matters. In fact, $4 billion in VAWA grant funds were awarded to state, tribal, and local governments, non-profit organizations focused on ending violence against women and universities. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law on February 19, 2009, included an additional $225 million to combat the legacy of laws and social norms that long served to justify violence against women. However, when a case challenging the civil rights remedy reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, the remedy was struck down as unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).
· Education and training about violence against women for victim advocates, health professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges.
So, now over two decades after this landmark legislation passed, it is evident that the VAW Act has increased prosecution rates of domestic violence cases, but there is little conclusive evidence that it has significantly reduced the incidence of violence. According to the Department of Justice, the rate of intimate partner violence dropped 64% between 1994 and 2010, a drop many attribute to the law. But this decrease happened in tandem with the sharp drop in violent crime nationwide and when the economy was rebounding, making it hard to know whether a drop in domestic violence might have happened without the policies adopted.
And we also have to keep in mind that no matter how much new legislation is passed, the stigma associated with domestic violence is entrenched in our society. As a result, it is still a severely under-reported crime, and some critics say mandatory arrest policies have exacerbated this problem. These policies, which existed in some states before VAW but became more common after early versions of VAW encouraged them, require police officers responding to domestic violence calls to arrest alleged abusers if there is probable cause to believe assaults have taken place.
The intent of these laws was to spur a culture change in law enforcement, which had a long history of declining to intervene in domestic violence situations. But some say mandatory arrest discourages some women from reporting domestic violence because they fear their partners, either from physical retaliation following the arrest or because of the loss of income if the defendant is thrown in jail.
Education is the cohesion that this Act needs to be fully effective. Education is needed on a mainstream level for both those affected by domestic violence and those on the periphery who thankfully are not facing violence. Bridging that gap will be education, and together we can offer hope to the victims and tools to those who can help them.