Violence against Women Act

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Violence Against Women Act of 1994

Elizabeth M. Schneider

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) (P.L. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1902) was introduced in Congress in 1990 and enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to address the widespread problems of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of violence against women. VAWA is a comprehensive law that includes measures to reduce the frequency of violence against women, provide services to victims of gender-based violence, and hold perpetrators accountable.


The act effected the following changes:

  • the creation of a national domestic violence hotline
  • increased funding for battered women's shelters
  • new criminal penalties for domestic violence committed across state lines and interstate violations of protection orders
  • required states to enforce orders of protection issued by other states
  • increased prison sentences for certain federal sex crimes, with perpetrators required to make restitution to victims
  • the creation of a mechanism enabling battered immigrant women to obtain lawful immigration status without relying on the assistance of an abusive citizen husband
  • provided funding for increased education on sexual assault and domestic violence and for studies of gender bias in federal courts
  • the creation of a civil rights remedy for victims of gender-motivated violence, which would allow victims of such violence to bring suits in federal court against perpetrators for violation of the victims' civil rightsa remedy later deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court


Support for VAWA came from a broad range of organizations, and much of the organizing around this legislation occurred at the grassroots level. Proponents of VAWA argued that violence against women is a form of discrimination based on sex. Because a climate of fear prevents women from participating equally in society, gender-based violence has the effect of turning women and girls into second-class citizens. Proponents argued that violence against women is a pervasive problem that keeps women from fully participating as citizens in their homes, workplaces, and in society in general. Existing state and federal laws, they claimed, were inadequate to address this problem.

Congress heard testimony from a wide variety of witnesses, who presented the following information in support of VAWA:

  • three out of four American women will be victims of violent crimes sometime during their life
  • as many as 50 percent of homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence
  • an estimated four million women are battered each year by their husbands or partners
  • the incidence of rape rose four times as fast as the total national crime rate
  • an individual who commits rape has only about 4 chances in 100 of being arrested, prosecuted, and found guilty of any offense
  • less than 1 percent of rape victims has collected damages
  • almost one-quarter of all convicted rapists never go to prison and another quarter received sentences in local jails where the average sentence is eleven months
  • almost 50 percent of rape victims lose their jobs or are forced to quit because of the crime's severity

After intensive lobbying by supporters, VAWA gained wide bipartisan support in Congress for most of its provisions. The civil rights remedy created by the VAWA was by far the most controversial element of the legislation. Opponents argued that the civil rights remedy would bring before the federal courts issues traditionally and more properly dealt with by the state courts, such as domestic relations and other family and crimincal law matters. Proponents maintained that existing state laws provided inadequate and ineffective remedies to victims of gender-based violence.


In 2000 the Supreme Court considered a challenge to the civil rights remedy created by VAWA in United States v. Morrison. The Court held that Congress did not have the power to enact this provision and deemed it unconstitutional. The act's other provisions were unaffected.

The same year Congress passed VAWA 2000, which reauthorized the original VAWA provisions and created a number of new provisions. One of these provisions made it easier for battered immigrant women to obtain lawful permanent resident status by cooperating in the prosecution of their batterers. VAWA 2000 also made money available to develop policies and training programs to address the needs of older women and women with disabilities.

VAWA directed a great deal of public attention to the issue of violence against women. As a result of this legislation, a federal office was created to administer VAWA grant programs, conduct studies, and provide information to the public on to gender-based violence.


Frazee, David, et al., eds. Violence Against Women, Law and Litigation. Deerfield, N.Y.: Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1997.

Schneider, Elizabeth M. Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Schneider, Elizabeth M., and Clare Dalton. Battered Women and the Law. New York: Foundation Press, 2001.

Statistics on Violence against Women

From the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization for economic and social policy research:

  • More than half of sexual assaults are committed by partners, friends, or acquaintances of the victim.
  • Approximately two million women per year are severely assaulted by male partners in the United States.
  • Domestic violence occurs in more than twenty-five percent of mar riages. Severe, repeated violence occurs in one of every fourteen marriages.
  • In 1994, twenty-eight percent of female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.
  • One-fifth of all medical visits by women, and one-third of all emer gency room visits by women, are due to battering.
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A sweeping response to the perception of increased violence against women in America, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 was a broad-based law that created everything from funding of domestic-violence programs to new civil rights remedies for women who were victims of gender-based attacks. The scope of the law made it somewhat controversial, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that at least one provision of the act was unconstitutional. But VAWA still managed to have a far-reaching effect on gender-based crime, and the reauthorization of the act in 2000 means that it will continue to have influence into the twenty-first century.

VAWA was first proposed in 1990, and support was subsequently strengthened by testimony before Congress of high numbers of crimes perpetrated against women every year, often by family members or boyfriends. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confirmation battle (see sexual harassment "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Hearings") and subsequent election of unprecedented numbers of women to the U.S. Congress in 1992 also helped to spur the act's passage. When the VAWA was voted on as part of an Omnibus Crime bill in 1994, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of it in both houses.

VAWA can be divided into three separate areas where it attempts to combat violence against women. The first area, and probably the least controversial, was in the area of funding. VAWA provides $1.6 billion over six years for education, research, treatment of domestic and sex-crime victims, and the improvement of state criminal justice systems. It also distributed funds to increase safety for women on public transportation, for shelters, and for youth education programs. In addition, it provides funds for the training of judges and other court personnel in combating gender bias in the courts, and also authorizes funding to pay the cost of testing for sexually transmitted diseases for victims of sexual abuse and to increase safety on college campuses. Finally, VAWA authorizes the provision of grants from the attorney general to local governments to improve the keeping of crime statistics, and allots money for the protection of battered immigrant women and children.

VAWA also increases criminal provisions for crimes based on gender (18 U.S.C. §§ 2261-2265) It prohibits interstate domestic violence, making it a felony to cross state lines with the intent to injure, harass, or intimidate that person's spouse or intimate partner. It also allows "full faith and credit" for protective orders across state lines and prohibits the inter-state violation of a state court's order of protection that involves protection against credible threats of violence, repeated harassment, or bodily injury to the person or persons whom the order covers. It allows the victim in a prosecution under VAWA the opportunity to be heard regarding the danger posed by the defendant during a pretrial detention hearing. Finally, VAWA provides for restitution to the victim, regardless of any other civil or criminal penalties the law provides, holding the perpetrator liable for the full amount of the victim's losses in the areas of medical services; physical and occupational therapy; necessary transportation, temporary housing, and child-care expenses; lost income; attorneys' fees, plus any costs incurred in obtaining a civil protection order; and "any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offense."

The most controversial part of the VAWA was the provision giving gender-based victims of violence a cause of action against their attackers. (42 USCA § 13981) "A person (including a person who acts under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State) who commits a crime of violence motivated by gender … shall be liable to the party injured, in an action for the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive and declaratory relief, and such other relief as a court may deem appropriate," stated the pertinent part of the act. Congress determined that it had the right to enact this provision under the commerce clause of the Constitution, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, and under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

This civil rights remedy in the VAWA created by far the most commentary of any provision of the Act. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740, 146 L. Ed. 2d 658,68 USLW 4351 (U.S.Va. 2000) struck down this provision of the Act. Chief Justice william rehnquist, writing the opinion for the 5–4 court majority, stated "Congress's effort in (VAWA) to provide a federal civil remedy can be sustained neither under the Commerce Clause nor … the Fourteenth Amendment … under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States."

Despite this setback, in 2000 Congress passed a bill reauthorizing the VAWA for another five years, including more funding for domestic-violence programs and new measures against the trafficking of women and children into prostitution. This initiative ensures that despite the loss of the civil rights provision, VAWA will continue to affect the course of the nation's fight against gender-based violence.

further readings

Fine, David M. 1998. "The Violence Against Women Act of 1994: The Proper Federal Role in Policing Domestic Violence." Cornell Law Review 84 (November).

Gleason, Christy. 2001. "Presence, Perspectives and Power: Gender and the Rationale Differences in the Debate over the Violence against Women Act." Women's Rights Law Reporter 23 (summer/fall).

Goldfarb, Sally F. 2000. "'No Civilized System of Justice': The Fate of the Violence against Women Act." West Virginia Law Review 15 (spring).

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VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT was introduced in Congress in January 1991 by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. In 1991 an estimated 4 million women were victims of domestic violence, with 20 percent of all assaults that were reported to the police occurring in the home. The bill was made part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and was signed into law on 13 September 1994, by President Bill Clinton.

The act authorized $1.6 billion to be spent over six years on the creation of rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters and authorized additional local police, prosecutors, victim advocates, and a domestic violence hotline. Funds were also made available to provide special training for judges who hear domestic violence cases. Provisions of the act expanded rape shield laws, created offenses for interstate spousal abuse, and allowed victims of gender-based crimes to sue those responsible in federal court. The act requires victims to prove the crime was not random and was motivated by animus based on gender. Portions of the act not originally part of the Violence Against Women Bill include restrictions on gun purchases for persons guilty of domestic abuse, safeguards to protect the confidentiality of information kept by state motor vehicle bureaus, and increased penalties for hate crimes in which the victim is targeted on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Although Republicans attempted to remove domestic violence provisions from the act, on the grounds that funding them constituted government waste, they were narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives and by a cloture vote ending a filibuster in the Senate.


Brooks, Rachelle. "Feminists Negotiate the Legislative Branch: The Violence Against Women Act." In Feminists Negotiate the State: The Politics of Domestic Violence. Edited by Cynthia R. Daniels. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Justice Research and Statistics Association. Domestic and Sexual Violence Data Collection: A Report to Congress under the Violence Against Women Act. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.

Schneider, Elizabeth M. Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Turning Act into Action: The Violence Against Women Law. Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1994.

Irwin N.Gertzog/h. s.

See alsoRape ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions .