Why I Fought for VAWA 20 Years Ago, and Why It Still Matters

Vice President Joe Biden speaks on the 20th anniversary of VAWA on September 9, 2014.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks on the 20th anniversary of VAWA on September 9, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

September 16, 2014

This month we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a groundbreaking bill that expanded protections for women across the country. I was honored to attend the White House event marking this occasion. As I listened to Vice President Joe Biden speak, I couldn’t help but think about how much VAWA means to me.

In 1994, as VAWA was being debated, I was the executive director of the largest and oldest rural domestic violence shelter in Ohio. It was a different time; there was no e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter. We had few laws about domestic violence in this country, and the ones we did have were fairly new and not well enforced. Domestic violence was seen as a private matter, best left within the family. Folks called the police when their neighbors’ music was too loud, but rarely when they heard the rumble of abuse. The women who came to our shelter were humiliated, usually injured, and often even embarrassed, feeling like they — not their abuser — had done something wrong.

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VAWA has helped change that perception. I was a young activist in 1994, eagerly receiving advocacy packages from the National Coalition against Domestic Violence that would help me write a letter to the editor or hold an in-district meeting with my state and federal legislators. Of course, back then this info came in a thick envelope rather than e-mail attachments or hyperlinks, and the purple mimeograph ink stained my fingers and offended my nose. I remember using copies of then-Sen. Joe Biden’s groundbreaking report Violence against Women: A Week in the Life of America to fundraise and to train other advocates.

Together, we activists passed that first VAWA bill. Little did I know then that my career would take me to our nation’s capital and that I would be privileged to work for members of Congress and advocacy organizations that would play key roles in the next three iterations of the bill, right up through the 2013 reauthorization. Far too many women and men still face violence on a daily basis, but the perception of this abuse is slowly changing and the quality of the response — from victim advocates to the police to the judicial system — has improved. VAWA’s programs have continued to evolve and expand as we’ve learned more, often the hard way, about sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. Yes, we have more work to do, but I’m so proud that VAWA and its supporters have been helping survivors rebuild their lives for 20 strong years.

Despite all the cynicism these days about Washington and politics, the impact of VAWA continues to remind me of why we do this work. Thanks to all of you advocates for your steadfast work to end violence against women and girls. This anniversary is ours to celebrate.




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