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National NOW Times >> Fall 2004 >> Article

The Violence Against Women Act: Celebrating 10 Years of Prevention

by Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst

On one of those perfect, early-fall days in Washington, D.C., in 1994, a handful of NOW Action Center staff members and activists trooped over to the White House lawn to witness the signing of a crime bill.

Tucked away in the omnibus crime bill of dubious merit was the long-awaited Violence Against Women Act.

Like obedient fans, we cheered at this bill-signing, even though no one mentioned this monumental act. While waiting for someone to acknowledge VAWA's existence, we reminisced about the intense four-year effort expended to make it a reality.

The feat began in 1990, when Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and then Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., submitted a preliminary proposal to address the issue of violence against women. The two senators pulled together the anti-violence community's 15-year efforts with hopes a national conversation about violence prevention and services would begin.

Advocates led by NOW and NOW Legal Defense Fund pulled together a working group and began the daunting task of helping draft the proposal.

More than 2,000 field experts, state and national organizations came together in what is now known as The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

The task force had no money at its disposal and few staff members to work on the bill. Without email or cell phones, curly-paper fax machines allowed us to trade ideas and successes, model legislation and Congressional target lists. After completing the process of drafting the bill, the largest obstacle—getting VAWA passed—still lay before us.

To do so, the innovative, comprehensive legislation needed a large grassroots movement pushing it forward.

We reached out to every progressive organization on the books that focused on target issues from women's rights to civil rights, anti-poverty to unionization. We also called in help from experts in medicine, law enforcement and public policy.

Many said this homogenization of groups "watered down the movement," but it was essential in getting the bill passed with bipartisan attention and momentum. Other critics said VAWA asked for too much money. Still more critics considered the right to sue in federal court and a battered immigrant women's provision ideas that went beyond all reason.

Keeping our goal in mind, we persevered with the help of dedicated Congressional staff and members of Congress (no more than 15 total, sad to say). In the end, the bill offered almost everything we requested and gained 226 House and 68 Senate sponsors.

In 1994, Congress allocated money to begin the prevention and healing efforts, funding VAWA at the full $1.62 billion over six years. However, a new Congress that swept in that fall (and elected Newt Gingrich as speaker), refused to release the funds.

NOW's massive rally against violence the following spring broke the log jam at long last, and the changes began.

Enforced by then Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and promoted by former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, VAWA brought sexual and domestic violence out of hiding into the midst of a national discussion.

VAWA broadened the range of services and counseling available to women who become victims of abuse.

While we laud these accomplishments, work remains to be done in areas of prevention and eradication. Data needs to be continually collected and analyzed. Cutting-edge pilot programs must be developed to take on these issues. Programs must further educate the community at large about ways they can prevent and rid society of rape and domestic abuse.

Both women and men can be empowered to grapple with these issues, by confronting established values and societal norms for women, reinforced by mainstream media, the entertainment industry and conservative religious groups—to name a few.

Reminiscent of VAWA's early days, an equally exhausting battle waged in 2000 when Congress reauthorized the expanded and improved bill. VAWA expires in 2005, so advocates have already started working on a draft.

While the outcome of the November 2004 elections will determine the scope and coverage of the new bill, it behooves all of us to get involved in a social, cultural and political movement.

We must demand funding and leadership from our political leaders and insist on measures that will lead to true prevention, accountability and the eventual eradication of sexual and domestic violence.

Without this, VAWA will be just another grants program subject to the political whims of those in charge of dispensing the money.

NOW credits the following key resources:
- Ten Years of VAWA Strengthening Anti-Sexual Violence Work
- Using VAWA to teach grass roots activism and national coalition building

Editor's note: Pat Reuss was the lead lobbyist for VAWA and crafted the strategy that led to its passage.

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