House Passes the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021
Photo by Chip Somodevilla

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) is one of the most impactful women on Capitol Hill, known for her stances on ending war, poverty, and fighting for the rights of people in her district and nationwide.

Yet her life journey as a single mother, social worker, community organizer, business owner and state lawmaker before being elected to Congress in 1998 hasn’t always been easy. Indeed, it exemplifies her courage.

On Wednesday, after the House voted to pass H.R. 1620, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) of 2021, Lee revealed in a press statement that she “understands domestic violence on a deeply personal level.”

“I know how important it is to have a strong and consistent support system to emerge as a survivor,” she said. “In the 1960s in California, I had nowhere to turn for support.” The bipartisan House vote, she added, “makes our country safer for all women.”  

Millions of women in America will benefit from this lifesaving law, which uses public policy to address domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It authorizes funding for a variety of critical grant programs. They include victim services, prevention, training, education, enforcement, economic stability and more. All programs are aimed at supporting survivors, providing them access to justice, and promoting healing.

Decades before he became president, Joe Biden authored the VAWA during his Senate tenure; it was enacted in 1994. Since that time, the measure has been reauthorized three times, but expired in 2018. In the previous 116th Congress, House members voted for reauthorization, but Republican leadership in the Senate would not take it up.

Today, the measure remains crucial. Experts estimate that one in three women in the U.S. experience domestic violence or abuse. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantining at home has left many women in precarious or unsafe environments.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. She introduced the bill, along with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

“Given the rise in domestic violence and sexual assault cases during this COVID-19 crisis, where perpetrators are spending significant amounts of time at home with their victims, this landmark, transformative legislation is needed now more than ever,” said Jackson Lee.

In addition to the protections the bill has provided for nearly three decades, it also increases funding for the authorization of the Rape Prevention & Education Program, and specifically includes prevention of sexual harassment to its authorization. It will additionally increase funding for prevention education programs that engage men and boys as allies and promote healthy relationships.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) worked together on an amendment to VAWA that would establish the first-ever grant program dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Newman noted the “epidemic” of violence against Black trans women and those of color.

“The Violence Against Women Act is about saving lives and ensuring justice for survivors who have suffered in silence for too long,” said Pressley, a member of the Congressional Equality Caucus and an avowed LGBTQ ally. “But until now, Congress’s efforts have overlooked the hurt and harm felt by LGBTQ+ survivors, especially trans women of color.”

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The VAWA legislation is also personal to Pressley and her family. She’s previously shared that her mother, Sandra Pressley, is a survivor of domestic violence. The Congresswoman has also been brave in speaking publicly about her own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault.

In Congress, Pressley has sought to advocate for fellow survivors. She is a lead co-sponsor of H.R. 5388, legislation that would prevent the Secretary of Education from rolling back Title IX protections for survivors. She’s also backed H.R.2148, the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act, which would strengthen protections from workplace discrimination and harassment.

Last month, the National Women’s Law Center, TIME’S UP Foundation and ‘me too.’ International, launched We, As Ourselves, a campaign that seeks to change the conversation about sexual violence and its impact on Black communities. The new initiative aims to challenge prevailing and harmful narratives about Black women, girls, femmes, trans and gender nonconforming survivors of sexual violence.

Working in collaboration, the organizations aim to create safe spaces where Black survivors can confront their stories; upend cultural narratives that harm and silence Black survivors; and build new practices wherein Black survivors are believed, heard, and supported.

“We, As Ourselves is our love offering and our promise to not just show up, but to show up better and in full support of Black survivors, regardless of gender, sexuality, status or ability,” said Tarana Burke, founder/ executive director of ‘me too.’ International in a statement. “With each Black survivor who is affirmed and supported through this initiative, we get one step closer to dismantling the systems that perpetuate sexual violence.”

The coalition released a Love Letter to Survivors, a video tribute from prominent and powerful survivors, activists, and celebrities. Other works in progress include conversation guides; a five-part event series; and rapid-response tools to support Black survivors who come forward. The coalition plans to organize the first ever week of action during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, focused on Black survivors.  

“The labor of Black women lies at the core of our culture, our economy, and our democracy, yet our voices and our needs are continually sidelined and ignored both by the media and our institutions writ large,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “Safety begins by listening to Black survivors and trusting them to know the conditions that will allow them to rise to the fullest of their potential, above the harm and trauma that continually tries to silence them.”

“For generations, Black women have been excluded from the conversation and, when they are included, the narratives created around Black survivors, women, and girls are dangerous, destructive, and undermine their credibility and experiences at every turn,” said Monifa Bandele, COO of TIME’S UP Foundation. “We, As Ourselves” is clear: We will no longer allow this to happen under our watch.”

The bill now moves to the Senate. In a statement, Biden said this “should not be a Democratic or Republican issue — it’s about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence.”

He expressed gratitude to House lawmakers and urged Senators, “to follow past precedent and bring a strong bipartisan coalition together to ensure the passage of VAWA so that I can sign this legislation as soon as possible.”

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