This October, our nation recognizes Domestic Violence Awareness Month. 25 years ago, the landmark Violence Against Women Act addressing these issues was adopted — a bill former Vice President Joe Biden authored and pushed across the legislative finish line in 1994.
When then-Sen. Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, communities across our country were struggling to assure that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and other violent crimes received the same protections in our criminal justice system as victims of other crimes. Often, people knew abuse was happening but felt helpless or unsure how to respond to behaviors our culture viewed as “private” matters rather than as crimes.
This was also the prevailing wisdom in Washington, where many leaders, including Supreme Court justices and senators, wanted to keep the federal government out of “resolving ordinary family disputes.”
But not Joe Biden. He worked with victim advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and survivors to persuade Washington that change needed to happen if the fundamental human rights of the victims of gender-motivated crimes such as domestic and sexual violence were to be assured.
When the Violence Against Women Act became law, Joe Biden could have done a victory lap and moved on. Instead, he kept pushing for strong enforcement of the law to save more lives and end the scourge of violence against women.
I would know. I served as the first Director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women. I visited shelters and rape crisis centers that now had more funding to provide beds to families in crisis and support services for sexual assault victims. I met with prosecutors and judges who were receiving more and better training on how to respond to incidents of domestic and sexual violence.
We were paving the road to progress — decreasing domestic violence rates by more than 60 percent within 10 years of passage of the Violence Against Women Act.
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This work continued in the Obama-Biden administration. The Vice President made sure the federal government had the tools and the platforms needed to keep and support our focus on issues of violence which predominantly affect women.
He launched the “It’s On Us’ campaign to make college campuses safer for our daughters and sons. And he kept pushing for Congress to act, whether it was reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act or supporting the rights of victims in other legislative priorities.
Being a victim of domestic violence used to be a preexisting condition; it was something insurance companies could use against women to justify charging them more for health coverage. The Obama-Biden Administration made sure the Affordable Care Act righted that wrong.
Twenty-five years after the Violence Against Women Act passed, we still have more work to do. Here in Iowa, local and state hotline staff answer an average of 18 calls an hour. The Des Moines Register found that in 2016, more than 6,400 Iowans suffered from domestic violence — and those are just the cases that have been reported.
On April 4, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2019. However, the reauthorization legislation is stalled in the Senate. For many years our country led the way in addressing and reducing crimes of violence against women. It is inconceivable that we would fail to build upon the successes of the Violence Against Women Act.
I could not honor Domestic Violence Awareness month without recognizing how far we’ve come in 25 years since the passage of VAWA, and that — without the passionate vigilance of Joe Biden over many years — the legislation would not have become law. During my tenure as Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, Biden supported our work vigorously at every turn and has continued to do so to this day — not just during Domestic Violence Awareness month, but every day.
Bonnie Campbell is a former Iowa Attorney General and the first-ever head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.