WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama signed expanded protections for domestic violence victims into law Thursday, renewing a measure credited with curbing attacks against women a year and a half after it lapsed amid partisan bickering.
The revitalized Violence Against Women Act also marked an important win for gay rights advocates and Native Americans, who will see new protections under the law, and for Obama, whose attempts to push for a renewal failed last year after they became entangled in gender politics and the presidential election.
“This is your day. This is the day of the advocates, the day of the survivors. This is your victory,” Obama said. “This victory shows that when the American people make their voices heard, Washington listens.”
As Obama prepared to put his pen to the new law, new government data underscored both the progress that has been made and the enduring need to do more.
The rate of sexual violence against women and girls age 12 or older fell 64 percent in a decade and has remained stable for five years, the Justice Department said in a survey released Thursday. In 2010, women and girls nationwide experienced about 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults, compared with 556,000 in 1995.
The survey also showed that rapes and sexual assault rates involving women have plateaued while violent crime rates overall have declined. Women’s advocacy groups called the report proof that the Violence Against Women Act and heightened awareness of the problem by police has had a positive effect.
Still, 1 in 5 women will be raped during their lifetime, said Obama, asserting a continued need for action nearly two decades after the bill’s original passage in 1994.
“It didn’t just change the rules, it changed our culture. It empowered people to start speaking out,” Obama said.
The law authorizes some $659 million a year over five years for programs that strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to crimes against women and some men, such as transitional housing, legal assistance, law enforcement training and hotlines. One element of this year’s renewal focuses on ways to reduce sexual assault on college campuses. It also reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, adds stalking to the list of crimes that make immigrants eligible for protection and authorizes programs to reduce the backlog in rape investigations.
After twice being renewed with little resistance, it was something of a surprise in 2011 when lawmakers let the act expire. At the crux of the election-year clash were disagreements about expanded protections for gays and lesbians, Native Americans and illegal immigrants.
Sensing a political advantage, Senate Democrats offered an expanded law that specifically protects gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans and gives tribal authorities the power to prosecute non-Indians for abuse committed on tribal lands. Republicans saw the move to load a popular bill with controversial elements as a provocation and objected to the Native American provisions on constitutional grounds. Democrats rejected a Republican alternative, arguing it didn’t go far enough.
Continued resistance became less tenable for the GOP after its less-than-stellar performance among women voters in November’s election. In February, House Republicans capitulated and allowed a vote on an almost identical version of the bill, which passed 286-138. It was the third time in two months that House Speaker John Boehner let a Democratic-supported bill reach the floor despite opposition from a majority of his own party — a clear sign that Republicans wanted to put the issue behind them.
“When I see how quickly it got done, I’m feeling — it makes me feel optimistic,” Obama said sarcastically as he signed the bill Thursday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Eric Holder and members of the House and Senate from both parties joined Obama for the signing ceremony, as did Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote and sponsored the original law in 1994. Obama and Biden offered special thanks to Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who supported the renewal despite opposition from many in their party.
The Violence Against Women Act has set the standard for how to protect women, and some men, from domestic abuse and prosecute abusers and is credited with helping reduce domestic violence incidents by two-thirds since its inception.