20 years later, current events show challenges remain for domestic violence victims.


Ray Rice's indefinite NFL suspension coincides with the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. 

By Tierney SneedSept. 9, 2014 | 6:18 p.m. EDT+ More


Twenty years after Congress passed the monumental Violence Against Women Act legislation, empowering advocates for abused women, the nation once again found itself with a painful reminder of the problem Congress tried to address. Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the press, "Hitting a woman is not something a real man does" in response to a high-profile case of domestic violence involving NFL player Ray Rice.

The next morning, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation celebrating the passage of VAWA, and the strides the country has made in combating domestic violence since.

“VAWA has provided hope, safety, and a new chance at life for women and children across our nation,” the proclamation said. “With advocates, law enforcement officers, and courageous women who have shared their stories joined in common purpose, our country has changed its culture; we have made clear to victims that they are not alone and reduced the incidence of domestic violence.”

However the proclamation also acknowledged the problem of domestic violence is far from solved, a reality that the necessity of Earnest’s comments – coming in response to a video leaked Monday showing Rice knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator – clearly demonstrates.

“VAWA was a landmark federal legislation,” says Jane Aoyama-Martin, executive director of Pace Law School’s Women’s Justice Center, who has been an anti-domestic violence activist for more than 30 years. “You take a thing like a Ray Rice, and it brings home how much work there is to do.”

Since VAWA became law, the rate of violence between intimate partners has fallen by 64 percent, according to the Justice Department statistics through 2010 (though that decline was part of a broader drop in crime). It is widely praised not only for enhancing the tools law enforcement had to prosecute abusers, but changing the overall culture in how Americans perceived domestic violence, which was at times thought to be a private matter that didn’t warrant the intervention of outside authorities.

“It set a national standard, and it gave it the importance and the money and the funding needed to change policing and enforcement, and really to put national muscles behind the efforts to reduce violence against women,” says Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights organization.

Its passage was the result of decades of work by feminists and domestic victims advocates, who had to overcome accusations that the bill would break up families. While those concerns have largely since been dismissed, the legislation has not been without its challenges. Most recently, its existence was placed in limbo when House Republicans appeared unwilling to reauthorize it over its expanded protections for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants and LGBT people.

While VAWA and those added protections survived that debate, the law hasn’t stood up to every challenge. In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down VAWA provisions that allowed victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in civil court.

Today, critics are skeptical of its push toward mandatory arrests policies, as a 2007 Harvard studyshowed that states the institute those requirements exhibited higher rates of intimate partner homicide.

“Those are reasonable concerns,” says Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which has opposed VAWA. “Maybe some of our efforts here are actually backfiring on the people they are supposed to be helping.”

What’s clear is that VAWA has significantly raised the reporting of domestic violence crimes, with Justice Department statistics showing the rate of reporting by women and men increasing 51 percent and 37 percent, respectively. As more victims use the services and channels instituted by VAWA, the attention now is on supporting those services financially.

“We have a coordinated community response that is getting more victims into services and yet we have not met the need for services with appropriate funding,” says Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She points out that the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which provides federal funding for domestic violence services, will need to be reauthorized next year.

According to a 2010 report by her organization, in 2010, 82 percent of domestic violence programs had a rise in demand for services while at the same time 77 percent saw their funding cut. In a single day, the survey found, about 10,000 domestic violence-related requests went unmet because programs didn’t having the resources required.

As highlighted in the #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft Twitter conversation that emerged from Rice’s victim’s decision to marry Rice even after the assault, the choice to get out a violent relationship is difficult and full of challenges.

“Leaving an abuser is complicated,” Aoyama-Martin says. “It’s case by case, but there are many, many reasons why women stick by their abusers.”

In addition to increased funding for shelters, there are other proposals to help women who want to flee abusive situations, like Florida Democrat Rep. Patrick Murphy’s proposal to give victims easier access to essential documents like birth certificates and Social Security ID cards.

Additionally, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have each introducedlegislation that would increase gun owning restrictions on those convicted or accused of domestic abuse, respectively, though those efforts have been heavily criticized by gun rights activists who saw they infringe on the Second Amendment.

As the policy debates rage, so does the discussion of culture’s role – specifically in Rice’s case, when it appears the NFL at first did not take the assault seriously with his initial two game suspension (it later upped that suspension to six-games, and then indefinitely with the appearance of the video). Activists say VAWA helped create a culture that made possible the public backlash to Rice’s assault and the NFL’s handling of it.

“What’s happened with Ray Rice would not have happened 30 years ago. 20 years ago. The public now believes far more now than they did that domestic violence is wrong,” Smeal says. “Policy and laws make a difference, they do help change behavior – when there is consequences and people see that.”