Twenty years ago today, the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law. It remains my proudest legislative achievement — but it didn’t happen because of me.
It happened because, at a time when kicking a woman in the stomach or pushing her down the stairs was not taken seriously as a crime — and at a time when domestic violence against women was considered a “family affair” — something remarkable happened.
Incredibly brave and courageous women began speaking up.
Women like Marla, a model whose face was slashed by two men because she’d refused her landlord’s entrees, and who was questioned for 20 minutes during the trial about why she was wearing a miniskirt. As if she had asked for or welcomed this repugnant act of violence. Marla spoke out.
Women like Christine, who was raped in a dorm room by a friend’s boyfriend. Christine said she hadn’t even known she’d been raped, because she’d known the man. But Christine added her voice.
There were so many more. Women who had their arms broken with hammers and heads beaten with pipes, who were among the 21,000 women who were assaulted, raped, and murdered in a single week in America at the time.
All of these women are victims. But they’re also survivors.
And because they spoke up, the conversation changed and a national consensus formed to do something to protect them. Their stories — experiences shared by millions more women — put this issue front and center before the American people. The country was forced to see the rawest form of violence and acknowledge the culture that hid it. And they began to demand change as a result. Local coalitions of shelters and rape centers led the way. National women’s groups and civil rights organizations got on board. And a bipartisan group in Congress got the bill to President Clinton’s desk.
That’s how we got this law enacted.
And with each reauthorization, we added more protections. In 2000, we included a definition of dating violence. In 2005, we invested in health providers to screen patients for domestic violence and associated long-term psychological and physical health. And in 2013, we made VAWA services available to LGBT Americans and restored authority for tribes to prosecute non-Indian offenders. As a result, over the years, we’ve seen domestic violence rates drop significantly, fundamental reforms of state laws, and higher rates of convictions for special-victims units.
But we know our work here is never done. This past week, I announced that we’ll bring together legal experts, scholars, and advocates to convene a White House Summit on Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Women because we know bias against victims of rape and sexual assault still exist in our criminal justice system — and we must make clear every victim has a basic civil right to equal protection under the law.
And if you need information and resources about how to respond and prevent sexual assault in our schools and on our college campuses, you can visit NotAlone.gov.
And if, God forbid, you’re experiencing this sort of violence or know someone who is, you can get help. You can do it right now. There is a network of passionate and dedicated folks all across the country who are ready to listen. It’s anonymous, and it’s safe. In fact, VAWA created the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which you can visit here,* or dial 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) right now for help and advice.
Twenty years after the Violence Against Women Act was enacted, I remain hopeful as ever that the decency of the American people will keep us moving forward.
They understand that the true character of our country is measured when violence against women is no longer accepted as society’s secret, and where we all understand that even one case is too many.
Vice President Joe Biden