March is Women’s History Month, a time we usually celebrate or honor a specific woman in history. This year, I would like to do something different. I would like to focus on domestic violence, an issue that has received a lot of attention in recent months because of legislation in Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. I want to use this opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the issue, the progress we have made since the 1980s and what still needs to be done.
Until the 1970s, there really was very little attention paid to domestic violence in our nation. But that changed with the advent of the women’s liberation movement. As women sought greater control over their lives, there was also increased awareness of problems associated with domestic violence.
Attitudes toward domestic violence have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. In 1980, health and law enforcement professionals did not know how to respond to domestic violence and often felt many women just needed to go home and try harder to be better wives.
In the early 1980s, domestic violence was considered a family issue that mainly affected wives and few laws existed to address the problem. At the time, there was very little understanding that domestic violence also could involve girlfriends, men, children or other family members. Consequently, very little attention was paid to dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, and other offenses often associated with domestic violence.
But attitudes toward domestic violence have changed significantly since the 1980s. From 1980 to 2012, the Maryland General Assembly enacted 98 bills to address domestic violence, including expanding protective orders, marital rape, funding for domestic violence programs, among many other programs.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first passed by Congress in 1994 with strong bipartisan support. VAWA, which was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, has had an enormous impact; it has strengthened stalking penalties, added protections for battered women, enhanced investigations and prosecutions of domestic violence and provided funding for domestic violence programs.
We have made tremendous progress in addressing domestic violence. In 1980, there was no federal funding for programs to aid domestic violence victims and combat domestic abuse; today, $12 million in federal funds are devoted to domestic violence programs. In 1980, there were only 13 programs in Maryland to assist victims of domestic violence; today, there are 20 comprehensive programs serving every jurisdiction in our state.
I am extremely pleased that both the Senate and House recently approved reauthorization of VAWA, which will make it possible to continue to provide the resources that are necessary to combat domestic violence.
We have made real progress in increasing awareness of domestic violence, but now is not the time to turn our attention away from the problem. A number of studies show that one-in-four American women report experiencing intimate partner abuse in their lifetime. It affects people from all walks of life, regardless of economic, ethnic and cultural circumstances. They deserve our support and that’s why we need to reauthorize VAWA, to protect women and others from domestic violence.