A reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has officially passed in the House of Representatives, and now heads to the Senate, where it’s poised to face staunch Republican opposition over the gun control measures it contains.
This legislation makes critical changes to VAWA, which was the first federal law to ever comprehensively confront violence against women including domestic abuse, sexual assault, and stalking by allocating grant money to combat and investigate these offenses.
First authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and the late Rep. Louise Slaughter in 1994, VAWA has been updated multiple times since then in order to best address current needs that people face. In 2013, for instance, lawmakers pushed through changes that would extend the provisions of the law to cover same-sex couples.
In the latest reauthorization, lawmakers aim to strengthen protections for women facing sexual violence by ensuring that non-tribal offenders on tribal lands can be held accountable, and by closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which would bar anyone convicted of stalking from obtaining a firearm. Additionally, the bill includes funds for housing vouchers, so survivors in federally-assisted housing are able to relocate quickly if they need to. It guarantees, too, that people will be able to obtain unemployment insurance if they have to leave a job because of concerns for their safety.
“As a survivor and a member of Congress, I want to use my power to protect other people from what I have experienced,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), one of the cosponsors of the bill, said in a statement. “With domestic violence cases on the rise during the pandemic, we need the Violence Against Women Act signed into law now.”
There has been a sharp uptick in incidents of domestic violence in the last year as people have been forced to stay home, prompting organizations to offer more flexible support including texting services as well as housing aid. A recent report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found an 8 percent uptick in reports of domestic violence since stay-at-home orders were issued, and research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts also found an increase in the number of emergency room patients with injuries from such incidents.
“Domestic violence is being called a pandemic within the Covid-19 pandemic, with growing evidence showing that the conditions of the pandemic have resulted in escalated rates of intimate partner violence, and in some cases more severe injuries,” Biden has said.
Although the last VAWA reauthorization expired after lawmakers passed a short extension in 2019, Congress has continued to appropriate funding for the programs it covers in the interim, meaning those who use them haven’t seen gaps in coverage because of the delay. But by dragging their feet on this reauthorization — which the Senate stymied last term — lawmakers have prevented important new changes and protections from being implemented.
“This reauthorization would significantly increase funding for rape prevention programs,” says Allison Randall, the vice president for policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “The longer it takes means more survivors won’t benefit.”
What’s in the bill
The VAWA reauthorization would continue to fund a number of existing programs it covers — including legal aid for victims, programs aimed at preventing and reducing dating violence, and support for medical care — while also expanding the protections the law offers.
Here are some of the areas that the reauthorization would change:
- Closes the “boyfriend loophole” for firearms purchases: The bill would bar anyone convicted of stalking or domestic abuse from being able to purchase a firearm. At the moment, this restriction only applies to partners who are married, cohabitating, or have children with the victim.
- Increases accountability for incidents on tribal lands: Currently, Native American tribes don’t have jurisdiction to prosecute certain violent acts against women by non-tribal members including sexual assault, limiting the legal accountability of some offenders. This bill would change that.
- Additional funding for culturally specific services: The legislation includes $40 million for the Department of Health and Human Services to specifically tailor programs to the needs of communities of color, including improving language access.
- More funding for the Rape Prevention & Education Program: There’s a boost in funding to efforts aimed at preventing sexual assault, including grants that go to states and community-based initiatives. The reauthorization would designate $110 million per fiscal year for these programs.
Senate Republicans intend to offer their own version of the legislation, and have already cited the House bill’s gun control provisions as a potential stumbling block for bipartisan support in the upper chamber.
“Certainly we ran into hiccups with some of the gun issues and that’s a big one for a number of us — stripping away people’s constitutional rights is not something that we should be doing,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a lead author of the GOP bill, recently told the Wall Street Journal’s Lindsay Wise.
Ultimately, since the 50-member Democratic caucus in the Senate will need 10 Republican votes to hit the 60-vote threshold required to pass the reauthorization in the upper chamber, the two parties may need to work out a compromise, or VAWA could get blocked yet again this year.