Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

New Legislation, Old Goals?

By Delphi CleavelandPublished October 21, 2014

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President Obama's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, was initially met with stark opposition from House Republicans, however one year later the bill was nonetheless passed. Skeptics critique the sincerity of the extent to which this new bill will create social change among citizens.
By Delphi Cleaveland, 10/21/2014

This October marks the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), signed in 1994. The legislation provided $1.6 billion towards investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and establishes the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The Act's 2012 renewal was opposed by House Republicans, who objected to provisions extending protections to same-sex couples and allowing battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas. Despite this resistance, President Obama and congressional Democrats succeeded in securing the reauthorization of the Act in March of 2013. Although the reauthorized version of the Act does, at first glance, appear to meet standards of social construction present in the new millennium, does it actually promote progress in the protection of women in the United States?

Some might argue that simply passing an updated bill marks progress. The law, after all, establishes standards that can enable legal recourse not previously possible. The substantive issue, however, is whether the bill in question advanced the social change it promoted or was merely a reauthorization of goals already achieved.

Reports show that intimate partner violence has dropped 64% between 1993 and 2010, the years during which the initial VAWA was in affect. Skeptics argue however, that during the same time, violent crime as a whole, decreased even more substantially across the United States. Thus, there is mixed support for the argument that the decrease in domestic violence can be attributed to the passage of VAWA and did not simply result from a nationwide decrease in crime.

Under the reauthorization of the Act, this kind of scrutiny should be addressed, in order to ensure the wellbeing of all American citizens. The added provisions, which extend protections to same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants, should not be viewed as an attempt to subvert House conservatives' agenda. Instead, such measures exemplify the progression of American social ideals and increase inclusiveness. 

Although States have individually begun to enable task forces to address issues of domestic abuse, the movements have been largely driven by white middle-class women. These activists, while effective, represent a very limited demographic. Resulting from this advocacy is the limitation of federal legislation in addressing the various specific issues of domestic violence that disproportionately affect vulnerable and underrepresented demographics. For example, African American women suffer the highest rates of deadly violence afflicted by family members, out of any other racial group in the United States. Teenagers ages 18-24 also exemplify the highest rates of partner inflicted violence. Surveys also attests that the often overlooked LGBTQ community, also exhibits high rates of domestic violence, though these incidents often go unnoticed, as people assume the issue to be predominantly heterosexual.

A further argument of the reauthorized VAWA comes from studies involving women in the criminal justice system. According to studies done by the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, there are strong correlations between incarceration and the victimization of domestic abuse. In other words, the dramatic increase in female incarceration in recent years could be a result of unreported domestic violence taking place due to a lack of such things as safe housing, protection, trauma and substance abuse services, and child care. Reauthorization of the VAWA should have taken into account studies such as these before a rubber stamp reauthorization, and further advocacy efforts should acknowledge these broader trends.

With the "help" of Ray Rice and the NFL more generally, President Obama named October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, stating, "When women and children are deprived of a loving home, legal protection, or financial independence because they are in fear of their safety, our Nation is denied its full potential.” Although this grand gesture parrots the ideals of the VAWA, it is as difficult as ever to translate posturing into substantive action. The recent reauthorization, too, appears to have been more of a gesture than a true attempt to help stem violence directed towards women.  The wellbeing of American citizens requires a political process in which lawmakers can put aside party affiliations for the protection of their constituents.