The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow, Saturday 13. In honor of that milestone, I talked with two women of color activists who’ve worked with VAWA—one primarily in the two decades leading up to its 1994 passage, and the other in the 20 years since. Loretta Ross, former director of the Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, was heavily involved in the early push for legislation in the 1970s. Tonya Lovelace, director of the Women of Color Network, joined the anti-violence against women movement in 1995. Here are seven vital facts to consider as VAWA enters its third decade.
1. Women of color advocated for VAWA long before it passed.
Vice President Joseph Biden gets most of the credit for pushing VAWA to passage in 1994, when he was a senator. But Ross says women of color began fighting for a law decades before. About their motivations, she says: “I was part of teams of women who started in the 1970s because we thought that more resources needed to be brought to our rape crisis centers,” she says. Ross was involved in this early advocacy when she worked with the Washington D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the only site at the time run by African-American women. This rape crisis center received limited funding from the D.C. City Council and private foundations.
2. Many critique VAWA for increasing the criminalization of communities of color.
Many in the gender-based violence movement are ambivalent about VAWA. Critiques abound, but a major one centers on how VAWA may be contributing to the increased policing and incarceration of men of color. Both of the activists I interviewed talked about their mixed feelings about the law because of this aspect. VAWA did indeed open the door for increased involvement by law enforcement in domestic violence cases, allowing them to arrest presumed perpetrators of violence based on probable cause. Lovelace’s first job in the field was VAWA-funded under “grants to encourage arrest.” She says she wasn’t literally encouraging arrest, but she was working primarily with police, prosecutors and judges.”I think that, like anybody else, we wanted to ensure women’s safety, [even] if that meant removing him from the home and putting him in jail to get her safe,” says Lovelace.
3. Women of color working to pass VAWA predicted an increase in the policing of people of color, but they fought for it anyway.
The critique that VAWA leads to the increased criminalization of people of color did not come only in hindsight. “We knew [VAWA] was not without its problems with increased state engagement,” says Ross. “We knew that it would have backlash for communities of color.” Lovelace agrees: “I think women of color have always stood in that place with mixed feelings and emotions around the work around that. It’s not like we didn’t know these systems were problematic.” But, as often happens with policy change, VAWA consisted of many compromises made in the hope of legitimizing violence against women as a serious and illegal act and bringing in a new, major funding source for anti-violence efforts.
4. Increased policing has led to women survivors being arrested as well.
Another unintended consequence of the law that both Ross and Lovelace mentioned is victims of violence—particularly women of color—being arrested when police can’t determine the aggressor in an incident.
“Police, in their attempt to be evenhanded and gender neutral, were arresting the women in equal numbers as the men,” says Ross.
“[Women of color are] not being perceived as victims,” Lovelace adds. “They are perceived as violent or as the primary aggressor in a situation.” Lovelace describes needing to think creatively about who counted as survivor because of this phenomenon: “I used to run a support group for African-American survivors where I was able to have women who’d been arrested [when] it was clear that she’d experienced violence.”
5. Protections for women of color, immigrants and LGBT people have increased since the 1994 passage of VAWA.
A number of provisions have been added to VAWA that address the specific needs of women of color, immigrants and LGBT people. This includes a 2013 provision giving Tribal Nations the right to prosecute non-Tribal members who commit acts of violence on Tribal land. This provision, along with the increase of protections for immigrants and LGBT people, caused an incredible stand-off in Congress. Republicans allowed the Act to lapse in 2011, creating a year- and-a-half gap before the bill was finally reauthorized. After two years, Republicans gave in to pressure and allowed it to pass. Women of color in the anti-violence movement pushed these amendments strongly, says Lovelace, and these changes represent incremental steps to improving the law.
6. Despite a disproportionate amount of violence in communities of color, the women’s anti-violence movement is predominantly white-led.
While women of color are disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence, people in the movement working to address this problem don’t look like them. “We continue to have a movement where the majority of the leadership is white,” says Lovelace. “And you still have largely white staffs serving largely communities of color.”
Race disparities are not unique to the anti-violence movement butLovelace says they can hinder service provision to survivors of color. “It’s truly problematic because issues of culture, [and missing] expertise, [mean] many of the cultural challenges that are related to the violence are not being recognized or understood,” she says.
A 2011 survey conducted by the Women of Color Network called “Women of Color Leadership: A Look at the Experiences of Women of Color Executives in the Anti-Violence Against Women’s Movement” found that the vast majority of women of color reported racially motivated stereotyping in the workplace. Even 81 percent of white respondents reported witnessing situations where bias against women of color was at play in their organizations. Seventy percent of those surveyed also said that the leadership of their organizations (including the boards of directors) were primarily white.
7. VAWA’s success depends on who you ask.
Whether or not we can consider VAWA a success depends entirely on our perceptions and definition of it. For example, it’s unclear whether VAWA has actually decreased violence. The White House released a report in honor of the 20th anniversary that correlates VAWA with reduced rates of intimate partner violence. In a section titled “20 Years of Progress,” the report makes the case for success: “Yearly domestic violence rates dropped dramatically by 64 [percent] from 1993 to 2010. Between 1993 and 2012, the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner declined 26 [percent] for women and 48 [percent] for men.”
Some question the role of VAWA in these decreases because they mirror a similar trend in national crime statistics overall. And Ross is skeptical of the idea that we can claim a reduction in intimate partner violence at all, pointing out that these statistics are based on voluntary reporting by police precincts. “All we know is there is a decrease in the voluntary reporting of those departments,” says Ross. “That’s the best you can say about those statistics.”
But based on the original goals laid out by Ross—bringing new funding to anti-rape and -violence organizations and shifting perceptions of violence against women—we could say yes, VAWA has been successful. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new subsidies have gone to violence prevention projects around the country. And in these past two decades,domestic violence against women is widely seen as unacceptable. “We’ve made more women know that they don’t have to take it,” says Ross. “They don’t have to be victimized.”