As the world heard Christine Blasey Ford detail her sexual assault accusations Thursday against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Violence Against Women Act — legislation first passed during a strikingly similar time in history — was on the verge of expiring.
The law, enacted in 1994 and renewed and expanded since, was set to expire Sept. 30. It was put in place, in part, to fund social service agencies that support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Considered landmark legislation, it arrived in the aftermath of the 1991 testimony by Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings to be a Supreme Court Justice. Hill alleged that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas. The law was also enacted with the backdrop of the so-called Year of the Woman, when a record number of women ran for and won congressional seats in the 1992 election.
While President Donald Trump on Friday signed a larger spending bill to avoid a government shutdown — which included an extension of VAWA through Dec. 7 — some lawmakers have been pushing for more permanent action.
What is the Violence Against Women Act?
The act funds social service agencies that aid victims affected by sexual violence, such as rape crisis centers, shelters and legal-assistance programs. Over the years, various provisions were added, like setting up reporting mechanisms surrounding campus dating violence, and extending protections for the LGBT community.
If the act is not extended beyond December, the largest implications would be financial, said Katharine Baker, professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, who has written extensively on sexual and domestic violence.
Back when the act was first implemented, lawmakers recognized that prosecuting sexual assault and domestic violence crimes needed support outside a courtroom, Baker said. A network of social service agencies and a funding mechanism for them are crucial to helping victims so that they can come forward, she said.
Many prosecution offices, since then, have set up separate units to handle sexual assault and domestic violence cases, because they require a different set of skills, said Baker, adding that in some states money from VAWA goes to those units.
Why does it matter?
Sexual assault and domestic violence crimes “are difficult to prosecute,” Baker said.
“Victims are traumatized in different ways that usually require social workers (and other professionals),” she said. “We need to help women if they are going to tell their stories.”
“It’s a brutal, brutal process to be a victim of a sexual assault or a victim of domestic violence … and to have to talk about it in a courtroom. Those are very difficult proceedings for women to go through,” Baker added. “To be successful, you need a social service infrastructure to continue.”
And without successful prosecution of these crimes, Baker said, the social message is that offenders can “get away with it.”
What’s at stake
Letting the Violence Against Women Act expire could have more than legal or financial implications. There are also symbolic implications. Some lawmakers and victim rights advocates have said failing to extend it could give the impression that curbing violence against women is not a priority.
But Baker said Ford’s testimony in Senate Judiciary hearings regarding her allegations against Kavanaugh could also highlight just how hard it is for victims to come forward, how difficult it is for prosecutors to prove these cases, and how social service networks only bolster those efforts.