Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo
Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 12:08 p.m.
President Barack Obama signed a law Thursday expanding protections for victims of domestic violence, renewing a measure credited with curbing violence against women a year and a half after it lapsed amid partisan bickering.
The revitalized Violence Against Women Act 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 the rate of rapes and sexual assaults involving women has plateaued while violent crime overall has 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, Obama said.
"One of the great legacies of this law is it didn't just change the rules, it changed our culture. It empowered people to start speaking out," Obama said.
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 offered special thanks to Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who supported the renewal despite opposition from many in their party.
The law strengthens the criminal justice system's response to crimes against women. Although the law was renewed twice in the past with little resistance, it lapsed in 2011 when Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on a bill to renew it.
The Republican-controlled House rejected a Senate-passed version making clear that lesbians, gays and immigrants should have equal access to the law's programs. The Senate bill also allowed tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who attack their Indian partners on tribal lands, giving Native American authorities the ability to go after crimes that federal prosecutors, for lack of resources, often decline to pursue.
In February, House Republicans capitulated and allowed a vote on an almost identical version of the bill. It 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 after performing poorly among women in November's election.
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 in 1994.
The renewal authorizes some $659 million a year over five years to fund current programs that provide grants for transitional housing, legal assistance, law enforcement training and hotlines. It reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, adds stalking to the list of crimes that make immigrants eligible for protection, and authorizes programs dealing with sexual assault on college campuses and rape investigations.