Signed into law in 1994 as part of a larger omnibus crime bill, the Violence Against Women Act was groundbreaking federal legislation that sought to bolster the state-level response to domestic and sexual violence. Prior to enactment of VAWA, state courts and law enforcement, for instance, were finding it complicated to respond to domestic and sexual violence cases where abusers crossed state lines in order to commit violence, or while committing it. Protection orders were only valid in the state where they were issued. And domestic violence shelters, and services for victims of domestic and sexual violence were chronically underfunded.
VAWA’s approach to these problems was unique: a combination of statutes to respond to gaps in the law, e.g. creation of a new federal crime of interstate domestic violence, ensuring full faith and credit (enforcement across state lines) for civil protection orders and providing a new source of federal funding designed to encourage collaboration and coordination among key actors at the state level including law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers, courts, and technical assistance providers.
Championed by then-Senator Joe Biden, Senator Orrin Hatch, Rep. John Conyers and Rep. Connie Morella, VAWA was also significant in that its programs were designed to address the unique needs of various communities, including immigrant survivors, rural survivors, Native women and communities of color, among others. Since its creation in 1994, VAWA has been reauthorized 3 times including most recently March of 2013 when it was signed into law by President Obama.
Legal Momentum led the effort to pass the initial VAWA. When reauthorization legislation is pending in Congress, Legal Momentum works in coalition to see that each reauthorization increases rights and resources for victims and improves community support structures, such as shelters and law enforcement, which protect victims and prevent violence.
Legal Momentum led the effort to pass the federal Violence Against Women Act and continues to promote programs supporting and protecting victims of violence under the Act and at the state level. Every five years, Congress reauthorizes this vital legislation. Legal Momentum works in coalition to see that each reauthorization expands rights and increases resources for victims, and strengthens community support structures, such as shelters and law enforcement, which protect victims and prevent violence.
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
Passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was a watershed moment in the history of women’s rights legislation in America. Violence against women, in the form of domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse, and stalking was and continues to be a national epidemic. VAWA marks the first effort to deal with these problems on a federal level and provide resources for the myriad state, community and city organizations that assist victims in crisis and promote violence prevention. Legal Momentum played a critical role in drafting and advocating for its passage. Learn more about the history of VAWA.
Legal Momentum chairs the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and continues to spearhead congressional reauthorization advocacy surrounding VAWA. During the 2005 reauthorizations, Legal Momentum led efforts to increase employment and housing protections for victims of violence, and increased protections for immigrant women. The latest renewal, signed into law on January 5, 2006, extends the legislation for five years and brings the total amount of VAWA-related funding to more than $4 billion.
VAWA and Immigrant Women
Immigrant woman who are victims of crime such as domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, and human trafficking confront significant barriers to achieving personal safety and independence. Lack of eligibility and difficulty accessing immigration relief, public safety net benefits, and legal work authorization create paralyzing situations for women who literally have no where to turn for help. Because of heightened anxiety around immigration status, many fear seeking basic law enforcement assistance. Legal Momentum's Immigrant Women Program advocated for provisions included in the 2000 and 2005 VAWA Reauthorizations that eliminated some of the major obstacles immigrant women faced in achieving safety and independence.
2013 VAWA Reauthorization
The 2013 reauthorization differed greatly from the two previous reauthorizations. The 2013 bill faced strong opposition because of political differences over the inclusion of provisions that expanded protections for immigrant, Native American, and LGBT survivors of gender-based violence. For two years, beginning in 2011, Legal Momentum was at the helm of the National Task Force, working with members of Congress to get the bill passed.
Legal Momentum also worked with members of the press to help the public understand the need for the new, inclusive provisions. In addition to expanding LGBT rights, granting tribal courts greater jurisdiction in domestic violence cases, and increasing the number of U-visas for immigrant survivors of violence, VAWA 2013 allocated funds to address the backlog of untested rape kits, and increased funding for services to sexual assault survivors.
Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of VAWA
In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, Legal Momentum and The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law presented a symposium at Georgetown Law Center featuring Legal Momentum's long history of advocacy for women victims of violence and its leadership in passing this landmark legislation. The Symposium included presentations by Legal Momentum current and former staff attorneys who advocated, litigated, and helped reauthorize VAWA, and Vice President Joe Biden, who championed VAWA from its inception. Legal Momentum awarded Vice President Biden the Legal Momentum Hero Award for his invaluable work.
The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law's 2010 Symposium Issue includes an edited transcript of the speakers' remarks and articles by Legal Momentum staff and others exploring current violence against women issues and VAWA. Read more in the VAWA 'Resources & Materials' section.
Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of VAWA
In September 2014, to celebrate VAWA's 20th anniversary, the Office of the Vice President issued a report, titled 1 Is 2 Many: Twenty Years Fighting Violence Against Women and Girls, [link] which reviews the history of VAWA and specifically cites Legal Momentum’s work. The report states:
“Passing VAWA was not easy. There were only two women in the Senate when it was introduced; after the bruising battles of an earlier day, some civil rights groups and women’s groups were distrustful. Following the great principle of VAWA, which is to build trust among those who distrust, then-Senator Biden brought women leaders together …. Soon, led by the NOW Legal Defense Fund (now Legal Momentum), a coalition was brought together of grassroots providers, shelters, religious organizations, survivors, mental health providers, prosecutors, and victims’ rights advocates.”
This coalition became the National Task Force. (For more on the dramatic story of Legal Momentum’s work with then-Senator Biden to pass the original VAWA in 1994, read EQUAL: Women Reshape American Law, by Fred Strebeigh.)
To celebrate VAWA’s 20th birthday, several special events honoring VAWA’s anniversary were hosted by the Vice President, Legal Momentum, the National Task Force, and the Mary Kay Foundation. Legal Momentum also conducted a #HappyBirthdayVAWA social media campaign that was joined by more than 250 organizations and individuals, and garnered more than a million social media impressions.
In September 2014 Vice President Biden also announced the start of a major effort to revive the civil rights remedy that was a key part of the original 1994 VAWA, but was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. Legal Momentum is working with the Vice President’s office in this effort.
Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of VAWA
September 13 marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Legal Momentum has been a champion of VAWA from its inception and a leading voice in the reauthorization efforts. VAWA has improved the lives of millions by improving the criminal justice response to domestic and sexual violence and stalking as well as funding victims’ services. The act to reauthorize VAWA is currently before the Senate after it passed with bipartisan support in the House in April 2019. Legal Momentum and others have been calling for its swift reauthorization without any rollbacks from current law.
To commemorate this 25 year milestone, Legal Momentum has put together resources for all those who are interested in the history of VAWA, the reauthorization efforts over the years, and ongoing efforts to reauthorize VAWA in the Senate.
- "A Short History of the Violence Against Women Act," written by Legal Director Lynn Hecht Schafran.
- "The Violence Against Women Act is Turning 25. Here’s How it has Ignited Debate," a New York Times article which quotes Legal Momentum President Carol Baldwin Moody.
- Symposium on the 15th Anniversary of VAWA, organized by Legal Momentum in 2010 held at Georgetown Law School. Publications of the day-long symposium available through the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law.
Renewing VAWA is essential to preserving and expanding programs that provide life-saving services and prevention education to over 1.3 million people and have been proven to reduce the rates of intimate partner victimization. To get involved:
- Visit the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence for “action alerts” and to learn more about current advocacy campaigns.
- Show your support for our current VAWA reauthorization efforts. #VAWA4ALL #VAWA19