Flint-area resident Harmony Lloyd’s been on the frontlines of after-care counseling for women impacted by violence. She is a proponent of the Violence Against Women Act and believes everyone across the aisle should be, too.
MICHIGAN—As I settled into my desk, sipping my coffee, turning on my computer, I looked up and saw a woman standing in the doorway. Her eyes filled with fear, arms bleeding, her body shaking as she said, “Can you help me? I’ve just been raped.”
It was 8:30 on a Monday morning.
It was my first year working as an administrative assistant at a domestic violence and sexual assault services center. I would eventually see many more situations like this one, but that morning it was still new to me.
The trauma on her face was shocking.
I called one of the sexual assault counselors and she immediately came to assist the woman, gently taking her away to begin the long process that occurs after a sexual assault: rape kits, hospitals, police, and the legal system.
I do not know how that woman’s story ended. I hope she was able to heal and find justice against her rapist. But I have never forgotten her face and how in the aftermath of a horrible crime, she had the presence of mind to find her way to our center.
The Violence Against Women Act
Twenty-six years ago, in September 1994, then-Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored and championed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, creating a federally supported, community response to address domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
Building on the dedicated work of grassroots rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, it emphasized the development of coordinated care of victims among law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services, and attorneys.
VAWA was a powerful step in changing the idea that domestic violence or rape were private, family matters that should be kept secret and suffered in silence.
It was the reason the woman in my office that Monday morning and millions of others like her have been able to successfully receive help.
But this country still has a long way to go in ending mistreatment of women. Joe Biden himself has been accused of making women feel uncomfortable by invading their personal space and touching or kissing them inappropriately. In response, he has said it was his way of connecting with people and has committed to being more mindful of respecting space and boundaries. He was later criticized for appearing to make light of the allegations.
It’s also important to remember the country’s commander in chief was elected while facing numerous—at least two dozen—allegations of sexual misconduct, and later nominated to the nation’s highest court a judge who himself faced sexual misconduct allegations.
Gender-based violence still permeates our country. There must be a commitment to acknowledging it and continuously working towards rooting it out. VAWA is an important step in making that shift a reality.
Is Ending Violence Against Women Still a Priority?
Since 1994, VAWA has been reauthorized by Congress every five years with improvements made to the legislation each time it was renewed. Past renewals of VAWA have added protections for Native women and the LGBTQ community; increased funding for rape crisis centers and hotlines; and protected women from being evicted from their homes for being domestic violence victims.
In 2018, the Violence Against Women Act expired due to the government shutdown. In April 2019, a VAWA renewal bill was passed by the House of Representatives, but since then, it has been shelved by the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to even put it up for a vote.
The latest VAWA legislation prohibits those convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a current or former dating partner from buying or owning firearms.
Seems logical, right?
Not to the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying force, and not to the Republicans in the Senate. And so, the historically bi-partisan Violence Against Women Act, sits on a shelf, waiting on approval, for the first time in over 25 years.
On the recent 26th anniversary of VAWA, Biden released a statement in which he pledged that if elected, he would “immediately push for Congress” to pass the VAWA reauthorization and send it to his desk.
The Real Life Impact of VAWA on Women
Domestic violence and sexual assault are issues that are incredibly important to me. Not only because of the eight years I spent working in a crisis center, but because of the many women I know personally who have been victims of gender violence.
My friend Danielle* was 14-years-old when she was sexually assaulted by a 25-year-old man. With her permission, I am sharing some of her story.
I had already worked at a rape crisis center for several years, so I knew that women being assaulted was not unusual. I also knew the process she would be required to go through after the assault would be miserable.
But, no matter how many statistics you hear or how many times you read a study about how many women are victims of violence, nothing prepares you for when it happens to a loved one.
After repeatedly telling him no, Danielle’s perpetrator forced her to have sex with him. He then drove to her parent’s house and threw her out of the car.
Danielle was taken to a local hospital and given a rape exam by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). Rape exams are very invasive and victims often describe them as feeling like they are being assaulted again.
But SANE nurses receive advanced training and clinical preparation to collect forensic evidence and provide specialized care to victims of sexual assault. The Violence Against Women Act has provided funding and federal guidance on the development of many local SANE programs.
After the rape exam, the court process began. Prosecution of rape cases are complicated and include law enforcement, medical professionals, judges, prosecutors, victim advocates, and community partners, like rape crisis centers. VAWA has been critical in providing guidance to these entities to create a coordinated system of care.
For Danielle, that meant being referred to a sexual assault counselor at a local rape crisis center. During a time of chaos and emotional upheaval, a sexual assault counselor often fills the role of being someone who can listen and help the victim process everything that is happening around her.
They support victims. Rape crisis centers receive significant funding for sexual assault-related counseling and victim support services through the Violence Against Women Act.
In the end, Danielle’s rapist pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Danielle lived through one of the worst things that can happen to a young woman. Nothing can change that piece of her life story. And the aftermath of a sexual assault is still a very imperfect process. The victimization does not always end with the rape and the legal process often leaves much to be desired.
But, making improvements to the system through specially-trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, coordinated care within the judicial system, and free counseling and mental health services for victims can help young women like Danielle move from victim to survivor. The Violence Against Women Act is imperative in making certain that happens.
What Happens Now
At the Democratic convention in August, there was a significant focus on gender-based violence and the Violence Against Women Act. Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden have spoken about the importance of VAWA throughout the campaign. They have made it clear the issue will be a priority of a Biden administration.
This is critical for Danielle and the thousands of other Americans who are victims of gender-based violence every year. It ensures the work of local rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters can continue and women like Danielle will be survivors, not victims of their story. It also reminds them that we as a Country support them and they are not alone.
*Editor’s note: This name has been changed to protect her privacy.