VAWA renewal is overdue—but approval is contentious

The landmark 1994 legislation—the Violence Against Women Act—is up for reauthorization, and includes a firearm-related provision.

On Sept. 30, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was set to expire. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) drafted a renewed VAWA plan with new provisions, which Congress extended through Dec. 7. The renewed VAWA plan includes new provisions to close the “boyfriend loophole” by banning convicted stalkers and those subject to a protection order from buying or owning firearms. Congress extended stopgap funding through early December, but stalled on full reauthorization.

four profiles of women in white and purple ink

Current VAWA funding comes from the authorization of $3.1 billion in 2013. The majority of that funding is funneled to the criminal legal system, supporting rape crisis centers, paying for lawyers for victims of violence, and providing money for transitional housing. 

But VAWA has also had a significant impact on college campuses. Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are federally required to report crime statistics with VAWA, and to report domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking as well. Schools are expected to maintain certain student discipline procedures, such as for notifying alleged victims of their rights, and adopt institutional policies to address and prevent campus sexual violence.

Here on campus, the Penn Violence Prevention Program (PVP) started under the Penn Women’s Center as a VAWA-funded initiative in 2009, when it received a three-year campus grant from the Department of Justice. The grant was given as seed money to create permanent programming and in 2014, PVP became an institutionalized department under the Vice Provost of University Life. If VAWA is not renewed, it would not impact Penn’s program, since it is no longer dependent on federal funding. But it would affect the Philadelphia community, and students who seek out city services. 

“VAWA doesn’t fund Penn anymore, but it does fund our community partners like WOAR [Women Organized Against Rape] and Women Against Abuse,” says Jessica Mertz, the director of Sexual Violence Prevention at Penn, who oversees the PVP. “Without that funding, the services at community organizations would be jeopardized, leaving Philly residents with limited resources. Many local nonprofits also support students at schools where there isn’t institutionalized programming and resources like Penn has.” 

For schools and universities, VAWA funding is a way to establish a program that can then become institutionalized, freeing up funds for other schools. Arcadia University in nearby Glenside just received VAWA funding in a new round of three-year grants. Schools with fewer resources to spend on such programs rely heavily on VAWA funds to implement programs.

The timing for the renewal lands in a particularly divided Congress, notes Mertz.

“I’m worried at this moment in time,” Mertz says. “There’s a significant backlash to the #MeToo movement, and provisions about gender have always been a partisan issue.” 

Susan B. Sorenson, the faculty director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in Relationships and a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice, adds that the last time VAWA was renewed, the Act had broad bipartisan support.

“The underlying issue with reauthorization since 2013 is that it has become a partisan struggle,” she says. “The topics in VAWA that serve as the vehicle for the underlying struggle are immigration, LGBTQ persons, and firearms. Congress was largely united behind VAWA in the past.”

VAWA was authored by then-Senator Joe Biden in the aftermath of the Anita Hill hearings and passed on Sept. 13, 1994. The initial Act provided $1.6 billion over six years toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, and funded support groups and battered women houses and shelters, in addition to education grants to colleges and universities like Penn. Through VAWA, the criminal and civil justice system doubled federal penalties for repeat sex offenders. 

The Act created the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice, which is responsible for carrying out VAWA. The former head of the department, Jeff Sessions, voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as a Senator in 2013. VAWA was previously renewed in 2000, 2005, and 2013—a process that gives policymakers, special interest groups, and the general public time to reflect about the current need for legislation.

In 2013, for example, President Obama signed an expansion to VAWA that increased protections for immigrants and other marginalized groups, specifically undocumented women suffering from domestic abuse. 

Since the act passed, people who work in the fields of violence prevention and action have adopted the phrase “intimate partner violence” (IPV) to remove gender and sex from the definition. Men, transgender, and non-binary persons are all victims of violence, and the act, though called VAWA, extends funding to protect any person who experiences IPV. 

Other proposed changes this year include increased funding for the Rape Prevention & Education Program, and for youth-based education for boys to learn about healthy relationships. The reauthorization would also help victims of domestic violence and stalking stay in stable housing situations, and bar evictions based on the actions of an abuser. 

In one way, the climate in Washington is similar to when the Act was first passed in 1994: Following Hill’s testimony to Congress in 1991, the “Year of the Woman” saw a record number of women elected to public office. The hearings brought the reality of sexual harassment to public notice, and largely motivated the VAWA proposal. This year’s reauthorization comes after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a record number of women elected to the House of Representatives in the midterm election. 

There have been lapses, but reauthorization and budget cycles follow separate calendars, so funding won’t immediately freeze up without a reauthorization. Sorenson is confident VAWA will be renewed, however “in what form, we don’t know.”