Violence against Women Act (VAWA) Research Paper

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The Violence against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 was the first and most comprehensive federal legislation to address violence against women in the history of the United States. Although some federal legislation was passed prior to VAWA to address privacy issues for rape victims, fund battered women’s shelters, and compensate crime victims, many people recognized that violence against women existed in many forms and had to be addressed on a national level. This recognition grew out of the women’s movement of the 1970s, itself a product of the earlier civil rights movement. As women talked with each other and organized themselves, they realized that rape, battering, and other types of violence were common experiences for many women. During the period of intense grassroots activism leading up to VAWA, women fought for the prosecution and prevention of rape, created shelters for battered women, and advocated for legislation that would make hurting women because they were women a crime. Until passage of VAWA, many people and some judges believed that if a woman’s boyfriend or husband hurt her, it was less of a crime than if a stranger hurt her. Many states still had laws that did not recognize violence or rape in marriage as a crime.


I. Introduction

II. Controversy over Title III

III. Titles IV–VII of the Violence against Women Act of 1994

IV. Violence against Women Act Reauthorization in 2000

V. The Future of the Violence against Women Act

I. Introduction

VAWA was first introduced in Congress in 1990. After four years of work by a few key senators and representatives from both parties and lobbying by over one thousand groups, VAWA became law as Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Senate Judiciary Committee investigation of Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson (the former battered wife of prominent football star O. J. Simpson) and Ronald Goldman in June 1994 also helped set the stage for bipartisan support of this landmark legislation.

VAWA has seven sections or titles. Title I, Safe Streets for Women, strengthened penalties for repeating sexual abuse, mandated restitution to victims, and further protected victims when they appeared in court by restricting questions about their sexual behavior. It increased funding for women’s safety in public and on mass transit and for victim services and created grant funding to train police officers and court personnel. Title II, Safe Homes for Women, had ten components. The first was the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a toll free information and referral service for victims. This title created two new federal crimes. It became a felony, first, to cross state lines to commit violence and, second, to cross state lines in violation of a protection order. A protection order is a court order preventing the perpetrator from having contact with a prior victim. In order to prosecute the second crime, VAWA mandated ‘‘full faith and credit’’ for protection orders. This meant that a protection order from any state or Indian tribe was to be honored in all others. These two new federal crimes were very important because the federal government, for example, the FBI or attorney general, could now investigate and prosecute crimes of domestic violence. Title II also emphasized the seriousness of violence against women by providing grants to encourage arrest of abusers. In some cases this meant new mandatory arrest policies. Prior to VAWA, many police departments did not arrest perpetrators or would arrest both the perpetrator and the victim. Mandatory arrest was especially important when perpetrators violated protection orders, as this put the victim’s life in even greater danger. Confidentiality of the addresses of both individual victims and of shelters was also mandated in this section.

Title II provided extensive funding for shelters, domestic violence education for young people from primary through higher education, broad-based community coordination of domestic violence intervention and prevention, and addressing the needs of people who had been underserved due to racial, ethnic, or geographical barriers. Resources for rural victims of domestic violence and child abuse also received funding. In order to identify further interventions to prevent violence against women, Title II required the development of a national research agenda by a panel of experts under the direction of the U.S. attorney general, who was then to report their findings within one year of the enactment of VAWA.

II. Controversy over Title III

Title III, Civil Rights for Women (also called the Civil Rights Remedies for Gender-Motivated Violence Act), was the most contentious section of VAWA. It was not only a source of argument during the four years before passage, when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist suggested to the American Bar Association that it could flood the Court with a variety of domestic relations cases, but afterward. The intent of Title III was to protect the civil rights of women and men to be free from violence motivated by gender. Congress enacted this legislation based on its findings that victims of gender-motivated violence were not equally protected in all fifty states, in part because of discrimination based on gender; that existing law provided a civil rights remedy for victims in the workplace, for example, sexual harassment law, but not on the streets or in the home; and that state laws did not protect victims from gendered violence because it was considered different—and less serious—than random violence, especially when the victim had a prior relationship with the perpetrator.

Two parts of the Constitution were used to justify this new civil right. First, Congress argued that women, in particular, were not equally protected from gender-motivated violence by the states. This is a reference to section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Secondly, they recognized that violence against women had a very negative effect on interstate commerce. As noted in Title II, prior to VAWA, if victims were pursued across state lines they lacked legal protection. In addition, Congress argued that violence was frequently used by perpetrators to prevent women from participating in interstate commercial activities such as working and traveling and that the impact was even greater after violence. This portion of Title III is based on section 8 of Article 1 of the Constitution.

Title III stated that individuals who committed gender-motivated violence were liable to the injured party for civil damages in addition to criminal penalties. For a victim to sue the perpetrator, the person needed to prove only that she or he had been a victim of a felonious crime of violence and that it was motivated, at least in part, by the victim’s gender. Congress was careful to exclude other types of domestic relations claims such as divorce, alimony, and child custody in response to concerns voiced by the federal courts. Yet, after less than a dozen district court rulings upholding the constitutionality of Title III, in 2000 the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison upheld the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision stating that 42 U.S.C. Section 13981 (the majority of Title III) of VAWA was unconstitutional. In this case, a student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Christy Brzonkala, attempted to sue two students, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, who had raped her, and the university. The Court ruled that although violence against women had an aggregate effect on interstate commerce, so did other types of violence. It therefore determined that Congress was not permitted to regulate violent conduct or to exercise police power via Title III. Secondly, it rejected the argument that a federal civil rights remedy was necessary because the states were not providing victims equal protection. Citing civil rights cases from the past, they ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment could be used only to prohibit state action, not to provide assistance to one citizen against another. Furthermore, Title III was to apply to all the states, and not all were discriminating against victims. They affirmed that Christy Brzonkala should have a remedy due to the assault but that it should come from the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the federal government.

III. Titles IV–VII of the Violence against Women Act of 1994

Title IV, Equal Justice for Women in the Courts, provided funding for states and Indian tribes to develop, test, and implement model programs for training judges and court personnel about the laws regarding various types of gender-motivated violence. Federal circuit courts were also encouraged to determine whether gender bias existed in their areas and to make recommendations for reform. Title V, Violence against Women Act Improvements, provided funding for testing victims of sexual assault for sexually transmitted diseases; a baseline study of sexual assault on college campuses; a report on the medical and psychological aspects of the battered woman syndrome and its use in criminal cases; and studies regarding the confidentiality of the addresses of domestic violence victims and of how records of domestic violence complaints are maintained. Title VI, National Stalker and Domestic Violence Reduction, allowed the sharing of national criminal information about domestic violence and stalking offenders with civil and criminal courts and provided funding to states and local governments to use that information efficiently. Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children, Title VII, recognized the unique protections necessary for immigrants and spouses and children of immigrants experiencing domestic violence. It enabled victims to petition the attorney general, on behalf of themselves and their children, to avoid deportation due to leaving an abuser. The VAWA of 1994 was funded through 2000 at $1.6 billion.

IV. Violence against Women Act Reauthorization in 2000

VAWA was reauthorized for five years in October 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Much of VAWA 2000 extended grants and programs from the original legislation, and funding through 2005 was nearly double at $3.1 billion. Title I, Strengthening Law Enforcement to Reduce Violence against Women, emphasized enforcing protection orders via pro-arrest grants and by giving tribal courts full jurisdiction to do so. Grants under the STOP program (Services and Training for Officers and Prosecutors) were reauthorized to help police and the courts work more closely with victims services providers, as were grants to encourage arrest, to provide services for rural victims of domestic violence and child abuse, and to reduce stalking and violence against women on campus. Title I also created a definition of dating violence and included it as an area for some grant funds. Title II, Strengthening Services to Victims of Violence, provided funding for civil legal assistance to victims, for shelters and transitional housing, for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for victim counselors in the U.S. attorney general’s office, and for enhanced protections for elderly and disabled women. It also mandated studies to develop recommendations for Congress on preventing insurance discrimination against victims and appropriate workplace responses to victims and to identify how state unemployment compensation affects victims who lose their jobs due to the violence.

Title III, Limiting the Effects of Violence on Children, provided funding for a pilot program of supervised visitation for children of victims, reauthorized the victims of child abuse program, and mandated a study of the effects of parental kidnapping in domestic violence cases. Title IV, Strengthening Education and Training to Combat Violence against Women, established a new grant to provide education and training for providers to assist disabled victims, reauthorized the Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Grant program and the collaborative community grant program, and continued funding to train federal and state judges. Battered Immigrant Women, Title VI, responded to unforeseen problems with protecting immigrant victims and to changes in immigration law by including access to VAWA provisions by Cuban, Nicaraguan, Central American, and Haitian refugees.

V. The Future of the Violence against Women Act

As of this writing, VAWA 2005 has been introduced into both the House and the Senate. Since 1994, the act has provided tremendous benefits to victims, but legislation is always subject to funding limitations and shifts in federal priorities. The proposed legislation goes beyond responding to violence against women after it has occurred to preventing it via interventions with children and youth and by facilitating community responses to the problem. Eliminating violence against women ultimately requires a societal and cultural change. Huge strides have been made in recent decades and VAWA has been a powerful force to accomplish this goal.

See also:


  1. Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Bantam, 1975.
  2. Hanmer, Jalna, and Mary Maynard, eds. Women, Violence and Social Control. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987.
  3. Koss, Mary P., Lisa A. Goodman, Angela Browne, Louise F. Fitzgerald, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, and Nancy Felipe Russo. No Safe Haven: Male Violence against Women at Home, at Work, and in the Community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994.
  4. Nourse, Victoria F. ‘‘Where Violence, Relationship, and Equality Meet: The Violence against Women Act’s Civil Rights Remedy.’’ Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal XI, no. 1 (1996): 1–36.
  5. Pence, Ellen, and Michael Paymar. Education Groups for MenWho Batter: TheDuluthModel. New York: Springer, 1993.
  6. Schechter, Susan. Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1982.
  7. Straus, Murray A., Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980.
  8. Yllo, Kersti, and Michele Bograd, eds. Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988.

Cases and Statutes Cited:

  1. United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740 (2000).
  2. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464 (2000).
  3. Violence against Women Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, Title IV, 108 Stat. 1902 (1994).
  4. Violence against Women Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-386, Div. B., 114 Stat. 1491 (2000).
  5. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796 (1994).

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