After considerable controversy that lasted about four years, the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was passed into law and signed by the President in the fall of 1994. The law comes up for review before Congress in order for it to be reauthorized on a set schedule. Prior to 2020, each time the VAWA has come up in Congress for review, the law generally has been reauthorized. 

The Act is up for reauthorization as of the beginning of 2020. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has not been able to complete work on a possible reauthorization of the law as of mid-May. With that said, understanding the essential elements of the Violence Against Women Act is important. 

In 1990, the Violence Against Women Act was brought before the U.S. Senate with prime sponsors from both parties. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican, and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, a Democrat, co-sponsored the legislation. The sponsors of the legislation stated that the proposal had three broad objectives:

  • Make streets safer for women
  • Make homes safer for women
  • Protect the civil rights of women

The Challenging Task of Making a Bill Become Law

Enacting the Violence Against Women Act proved to be a highly challenging endeavor. During the initial period of time after its presentation in the Senate, the VAWA faced two general reactions among senators and others. First, there was a great deal of disinterest in the legislation. Some have speculated that was due in fact to the presence of only two women in the U.S. Senate at the time.

In addition, there was a significant amount of fairly strong opposition to the proposed Violence Against Women Act. The opposition came from both sides of the political divide. For example, initially, the ACLU and the NRA (for different reasons) expressed opposition to the VAWA. 

Once the legislation became law, the U.S. Senate experienced a growth in the number of women holding seats in that body. In addition, the reauthorization of the law became less controversial after its initial passage, generally speaking. With that noted, and as previously mentioned, 2020 is a reauthorization year and largely because of issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of reupping the law has hit a bit of a roadblock. The reauthorization is expected to occur before the summer of 2020 or at the latest during the early part of the summer season. With that said, because of the contentious, partisan nature of both Houses of Congress, a heated debate is still a possibility regarding the reauthorization of this law. 

People Covered by Violence Against Women Act

The VAWA covers all manner of violence perpetrated against women (and people of other gender identities) who are citizens or permanent residents of the United States. In addition, the Act was expanded in 2005 to include victims of violence no matter their gender. The name of the law was not changed to reflect this alteration in the extent of its coverage. For example, as of 2005, men along with women are covered within the provisions of the VAWA. 

The VAWA also allows for the application via specific immigration-related provisions included within the law. Specifically, the law can be applied to: 

  • A wife or husband who has been abused by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (Green Card holder) spouse. The petition will also cover the petitioner’s children under age 21.
  • A child abused by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident parent. The petition can be filed by an abused child or by her parent on the child’s behalf
  • A parent who has been abused by a U.S. citizen child who is at least 21 years old

Programs and Services Provided via the Violence Against Women Act

There are a specific set of programs, services, and resources that are accessible via the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act. These include:

  • Federal rape shield law. 
  • Community violence prevention programs
  • Protections for victims who are evicted from their homes because of events related to domestic violence or stalking
  • Funding for victim assistance services, like rape crisis centers and hotlines
  • Programs to meet the needs of immigrant women and women of different races or ethnicities
  • Programs and services for victims with disabilities
  • Legal aid for survivors of domestic violence

Some of the resources available under the VAWA are coordinated with victim assistance programs on the state and local level. By way of example, the California Victim Compensation Board is an example of such an entity.

Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

Prior to the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence restraining orders historically were deemed enforceable only within the boundaries of the state in which issued. The VAWA provides nationwide enforcement of domestic violence restraining orders, relying upon the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This also represents an area covered by the law that applies to a person regardless of gender.