In a vote of 78-22, the U.S Senate voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act that expired in 2011.
The renewal included new provisions to ensure that gay, lesbian, immigrant and Native American woman have equal access to the act’s domestic violence programs.
“I am proud that our bill seeks to support all victims, regardless of their immigration status, their sexual orientation, or their membership to an Indian tribe,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont. “As I have said countless times, a victim is a victim is a victim.”
The vote was highly anticipated and some representatives that previously voted against it were changing their votes. Oklahoma Senators Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe were among the 22 no votes.
“Over 160 million women across the country are watching and waiting to see if the House will act on this bill and finally provide them with the protection from violence they deserve,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington.
Having passed in the Senate, it is now up to the House to decide whether or not to advance the VAWA.
“Delay isn’t an option when three women are still killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day. Delay isn’t an option when countless women still live in fear of abuse and when one in five have been victims of rape,” said Vice President Joe Biden, who negotiated the original bill in 1994.
The White House supports the Senate bill saying that among the positive changes created by VAWA are a decline in intimate partner violence by 67 percent between 1993 and 2010 and an increase in victims reporting domestic and sexual violence to police.
The act provides grants to state and local authorities for legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training, stalker databases and domestic violence hotlines. This renewal extends the act for five years and provides $659 million for VAWA programs, down 17 percent from the last renewal in 2005.
The act includes a provision that will speed up the analysis of DNA evidence in rape cases.
While many supporters of the act say a bill aimed at preventing domestic violence should be uncontroversial, arguments arise over the expansions added this year.
The bill has expanded to allow American Indian authorities to prosecute non-American Indians in tribal court, which has received opposition.
American Indian women are more than twice as likely to be raped as white women, and are left in limbo with tribal authorities who until now have been powerless against assailants outside of the tribal jurisdiction.
Protection for lesbian and immigrant women was added, with Republican opposition.
Historically, immigrant women are less likely to report abuse to authorities.
Immigrant women who are the victim of domestic violence, who are married to a U.S citizen or lawful resident and living in the country with documentation, will be allowed to petition for independent legal status. This means they will not have to rely on an abusive spouse, who often use the sponsorship they provide as an source of leverage or intimidation.
According to Anti-Violence Project studies, 45 percent of LGBT domestic violence victims are turned away when they seek help at a shelter. More than half of them were denied protection orders. With this act, however, nondiscrimination provision would prohibit the denial of services based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.
This renewal requested included a provision targeting human trafficking, voted 93-5. A provision ensuring child victims of sex trafficking are eligible for grant assistance was voted 100 to 0.
The act, as it exists before the renewal, improves the criminal justice response to violence against women.
The act created a federal “rape shield law” which prevents offenders from using victims’ past sexual conduct against them during a rape trial. It also mandates that victims, no matter their income levels, are not forced to bear the expense of their own rape exams or for service of a protection order.
VAWA funds train over 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and other personnel every year to ensure they understand the realities of domestic and sexual violence before responding to a crisis call.