Column: Democrats highlighted the Violence Against Women Act at this week’s convention. But it expired last year. What gives?
August 21 2020

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

Joe Biden has called the Violence Against Women Act his “proudest legislative achievement.”

On the third night of this week’s Democratic National Convention, actress and activist Mariska Hargitay, The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence President and CEO Ruth Glenn, and It’s On Us adviser Carly Dryden highlighted Biden’s work to end gender-based violence and spoke at length about the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden authored in 1994.

But the act expired last year and has yet to be reauthorized by Congress.

What gives?

First, some background: The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created federal legislation in the United States classifying domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. Prior to its passage, domestic violence was often considered a family matter, and was treated as such by authorities.

The legislation also provided federal resources to help communities combat gender-based violence.

After President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1994, the VAWA was up for renewal roughly every five years. New protections have frequently been added during the reauthorization process. In 2000, provisions for combating dating violence and stalking were added. In 2005, stronger protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence were added. In 2013, language was added extending stronger protections to Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community.

The VAWA was up for reauthorization again in 2018 and was allowed to expire during the U.S. government shutdown. It was then briefly renewed in early 2019 through legislation that temporarily reopened the government, before expiring again in February 2019.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the act in April 2019, but the bill remains stalled in the U.S. Senate.

“It’s disappointing that the safety and well-being of survivors has been politicized to the point that VAWA reauthorization is unlikely without a shift in Senate leadership,” Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, told me Friday. “This was, rather recently, a clear bipartisan priority.”

One major factor stalling the bill is the “boyfriend loophole,” said Darci Flynn, a human trafficking senior fellow for the city of Chicago. Under current federal law, people convicted of domestic violence can lose their guns if they’re married to, living with, have a child with or are the parent of their victim. Closing the loophole would mean people who are convicted of abusing or stalking a dating partner could also lose their right to buy or own guns.

In February, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council introduced a resolution urging Congress to reauthorize the VAWA.

“It is absolutely incumbent upon us to ensure that the countless residents impacted by domestic violence across our country have the critical federal support needed to protect themselves and their families,” Lightfoot said in a press release at the time.

“The issue of protecting women from domestic abuse should be a paramount priority,” Felicia Davis, president and CEO of the Chicago Foundation for Women, told me Friday. “In 2017, the Chicago Police Department recorded more than 7,000 violent crimes against women, an increase from 2016. That is an average of 19 violent crimes a day. In reality, it’s much worse, as many violent crimes go unreported.”

In addition, Davis said, COVID-19, the state’s initial shelter-in-place orders and the continued need for social distancing have put women at an increased risk for violence in their homes this year.

“Protecting women from domestic violence and intimate partner violence has always been a bipartisan issue,” said Davis, a former Chicago police officer. “This inaction is shocking and immensely disappointing.”

This week’s convention left Pyron cautiously optimistic.

“What is hopeful about the focus on the Violence Against Women Act at the Democratic convention,” Pyron said, “is the indication that a Biden administration would address gender-based violence as a policy priority, and extend protections to all victims of gender-based violence. The presentation of this issue was a clear message to viewers: The safety of women is on the ballot.”

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