WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, flanked by lawmakers and sexual abuse victims, on Thursday signed an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act, a measure that backs state efforts to combat rape and domestic assault and extends new protections to gays and Native Americans.
First authorized in 1994, the bill provides $660 million over the next five years for programs that provide legal assistance, transitional housing, counseling and support hotlines to victims of rape and domestic abuse.
In an emotional ceremony, held at the Department of Interior to accommodate the large crowd, Obama said the bill transformed the way survivors deal with abuse, providing a network of support that destigmatizes victims.
“One of the great legacies of this law is that it didn’t just change the rules; it changed our culture. It empowered people to start speaking out. It made it OK for us, as a society, to talk about domestic abuse,” Obama said. “It made it possible for us, as a country, to address the problem in a real and meaningful way. And it made clear to victims that they were not alone — that they always had a place to go and they always had people on their side.”
Obama signed the bill as the Justice Department released a survey that showed a drop in the rate of sexual assault against women and girls over the last 15 years — in 2010, women and girls experienced 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults, down from 556,000 in 1995.
Women’s advocacy groups have credited the Violence Against Women Act with the 58 percent decline.
Yet Obama said that there is still more to be done, citing statistics that show 1 in 5 women are likely to be raped in their lifetime and 1 in 3 are likely to be abused by a partner.
Vice President Joe Biden, who helped craft the initial version of the bill, praised the changes that expand coverage to Native American women on reservations.
“Because of the people on this stage and in this room, every time we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, we improved it,” Biden said.
The bill, which expired in 2011, became a flash point in the 2012 elections, when Democrats and women’s advocacy groups framed Republican opposition to the bill as part of a “war on women.” With women backing Democrats over Republicans by double-digit margins in the November election, the GOP reversed course.
Some Republicans objected to the new protections for gays and the expanded authority granted to tribal courts dealing with non-Native Americans who are accused of a crime on a reservation.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor offered a separate bill that made no mention of same-sex couples and offered compromise language on the issue of tribal sovereignty. The two bills allowed a majority of Republicans to go on record backing some version of the legislation.