The Violence Against Women Act of 1994: A of Celebration 20 Years


by: Judy Hale Reed, Staff Writer

For me, I was lost until I happened to be educated about domestic violence. Then finally, I was able to understand why I felt the way I did for so long; feelings of having no control and being hopeless was something I couldn’t shake. Now I can look back and realize it was because of the relationship, but at the time I didn’t understand it. I think educating people not only how to not be an abuser, but how to not be abused is critical and probably the best thing that comes from [VAWA legislation].

– Kristin [not her real name, to protect her privacy], Duquesne Law Class of 2014, and survivor of an emotionally abusive relationship

This year, Pennsylvania law schools are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA was the first piece of federal legislation to comprehensively address the widespread crime of intimate partner violence. It includes criminal justice provisions as well as victim services and protections, especially funding for housing, counseling, educational outreach, and public awareness campaigns. This law was the culmination of decades of research and advocacy.

A preliminary distinction to make in discussing domestic violence is between, very generally, couples who fight each other, orally and/or physically, and couples in which one partner systematically abuses, demeans, and controls the other partner, including cases where the victimized partner may resort to violence for self-defense. The law is designed to address the latter group of victims.

The biggest problem is that I never knew I was in situation where I needed any help from the outside.  When I thought of abuse it was some big scary guy punching a scared helpless woman; I never thought of it as control or jealousy or breaking things (not bones).  Sometimes in situations of abuse, like mine, you genuinely don’t know or realize it is happening.  You know you see your friends less, but you think it’s because you’re busy or you would just rather spend time with that person anyways.  Your partner is telling you not to talk to certain people, but you think about how you weren’t that close anyways so it’s not a big deal. When the big fights happen and they throw things or they “blackout” and don’t even remember the fight, they make up for it, or it seems like they do.  They tell you they’ll get help, see whoever you want them to see, change however you need them to change, but its a cycle.  It’s really good and it’s really bad. Over and over and over.  You’ve put so much into the relationship that you don’t want to leave it because it becomes all you know.  You know he’ll get mad over things that he shouldn’t, but you know what to expect.  Pretty soon you learn to not do those things.  You don’t talk to any other guys, ever, about anything.  You don’t have a girls’ night without him because who knows what could happen.

– Kristin

In fact, as noted in Morrison (below), the initial VAWA legislation included a “mountain of data assembled by Congress . . . showing the effects of violence against women on interstate commerce.” Id. at 628-629. According to the Centers for Disease Control <>, violence against women is one of the leading causes of injury to women in the U.S.

Two U.S. Supreme Court cases have limited VAWA protections. United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000) completely removed VAWA provisions for civil remedies.  Similarly, Town of Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005) found that victims of domestic violence have no right to have a Protection Order enforced. Despite these setbacks in advancing safety for women and victims in the U.S., VAWA has been renewed in 2000, 2005, and most recently in 2013. The most recent renewal added provisions to improve protections for LGBT, immigrant, and Native American victims of intimate partner violence.

​One of the best things about the new laws and having so many advocacy organizations is that the messages are getting out there.  It is still a taboo subject . . . but people know it’s there.  I don’t like to talk about my situation because in my mind, right or wrong, I still see myself as weak.  For putting up with it, for not realizing what was happening, for allowing myself to be put in the position I was, for taking so long to become strong.  These laws and these groups are helping to show that people aren’t alone.  It’s not a poor person crime.  Everyone runs a risk of abuse, regardless of gender, age, location, economic status, education level.  I think [VAWA] is a great start, but the problems need to be addressed before they become problems.  [Our society] deals with people who have already abused someone and people who have already been abused.  It needs to be stopped earlier, I’m not sure how we do that, but I know we need to stop people from being trained to be abusive.

– Kristin

Duquesne University plans celebrate VAWA’s 20th Anniversary with a week of events <> from March 24 to March 29, 2014. Events will include a Silent Witness exhibition, an information booth, a Lunch-and-Learn panel with local legal professionals, and a CLE Symposium on March 29th with a keynote address by Professor Cheryl Hanna <> and two panel presentations. We hope these events contribute to Duquesne Law faculty and students’ understanding of why VAWA remains an important law, and what each of us can do to make our world a safer place.


Ms. Hale Reed is a 3L who has worked for gender equality at the community and policy levels both within and outside of the U.S. before she entered law school. She is an active member of the Women’s Law Association at Duquesne University School of Law, and will be a co-panelist at Duquesne Law’s upcoming symposium CLE, “The Violence Against Women Act and Its Impact on the U.S. Supreme Court and International Law” on March 29, 2014.

For more information on the Violence Against Women Act, visit the White House VAWA Factsheet <> and the

For more information on Pennsylvania law schools’ 20th anniversary celebrations, visit the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence website <>

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