The enactment of VAWA was a hard-won, improbable victory. But the pandemic set us back, and there’s much more work to do.

President Joe Biden shares a moment with Kathy Sherlock (left), on March 16, 2022. Sherlock’s daughter Kayden was killed by her father during an unsupervised weekend visit ordered by the court. The event marked the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden helped to write in 1994 when he was a senator on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

It was a huge, meaningful victory. A historic event. The culmination of years of tireless advocacy. A true inflection point.

Twenty-nine years ago, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), finally putting the full force of our federal government into efforts to stop domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking to help survivors.

  • This landmark law provided funds for urgently needed services and improved legal responses.
  • It launched the work of creating a coordinated community response, bringing healthcare providers, schools and other institutions into the work to prevent gender-based violence and heal those harmed by it.
  • It reshaped our criminal justice system, introducing training for judges and law enforcement, which were largely failing survivors.
  • It set the stage for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and funded the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Enactment of VAWA was a hard-won, improbable victory. In all the years before it, most people facing domestic violence and sexual assault had to rely on friends and family members, seek out shelters that were often underground and barely funded, or simply go without help. Emergency rooms routinely treated survivors and sent them right back home to face further abuse. 

Many of the brave, valiant souls who were supporting survivors realized that we couldn’t keep doing this work on a shoestring. Domestic violence was a pervasive problem, in some way affecting every family and community. Depending on local organizers to provide emergency housing and services with whatever resources they could muster was wholly inadequate. Put simply, we were losing lives we didn’t have to lose. 

VAWA was transformative. In the years after it was enacted, domestic violence against adult women in the United States declined by more than 60 percent.

So we began the arduous work of demanding a federal response. Reaching out to Congress was thankless and often painful. We were ignored, dismissed, sometimes mocked. Lawmakers complained that we were trying to “take the fun out of marriage.” When we shared the horrific stories of women who had been beaten to death, they shrugged and said that lovers’ quarrels sometimes escalate. Despite the massive, indisputable societal costs, they insisted these brutal assaults were family matters best handled privately. 

There were exceptions, of course. We found and nurtured strong, enlightened champions. President Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator and the late Representative Patricia Schroeder were among them, as was the ever-visionary Nancy Pelosi. With their help and that of many women in Congress, we eventually convinced lawmakers to pass VAWA and through it fund shelters and support services, change laws, address problems in our criminal justice system, and focus on prevention. 

Those advances were monumental but, too, was the fact that leaders were finally seeing, acknowledging and addressing violence against women and children and its lasting, terrible toll. 

VAWA was transformative. In the years after it was enacted, domestic violence against adult women in the United States declined by more than 60 percent. 

During those years, we’ve worked tirelessly to improve and expand VAWA—which was far from perfect.

  • We fought for changes so that fewer survivors would get caught up in the criminal justice system.
  • We focused resources on prevention and on engaging men, addressing teen dating violence, and ensuring culturally specific services for communities of color.
  • We worked to expand its protections to all people, including immigrants and LGBTQ+ people.
  • We fought for full recognition of our tribal nations to care for survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.
  • We worked to provide economic supports for survivors, and help children and youth impacted by family violence and sexual abuse. 
  • We improved VAWA each time Congress reauthorized it, which happened in 2000, 2005, 2013, and again last year. 
Attendees view photos of a murdered Native woman, Anna Marie Scott, at the First Annual Red Dress Powwow on May 6, 2022, to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people. (Ty ONeil / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The pandemic set us back, and there’s much more work to do. We will keep working to improve VAWA, and to support the Biden administration’s National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence: Strategies for Action, a truly groundbreaking whole-of-government approach to addressing and preventing violence of all kinds. 

Ending violence against women and children and helping all people harmed by gender-based violence is the challenge of our time. Unless we finish what we started, our society will never be as strong, healthy and successful as it should be. 

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.