Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
Women's March demonstrators walk past the White House in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018.

Some have called 2018 the year of the woman, but the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act is evidence of how much hasn’t changed.

The partial government shutdown has affected numerous government agencies and over 800,000 federal workers, but it also has some less publicized consequences, including the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA.

First enacted in 1994, VAWA has helped fund and administer programs, shelters, crisis centers and legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence and abuse, sexual assault and stalking.

While no previously approved funding for VAWA-funded programs will be suspended because of the shutdown, any future payments or pending requests have been frozen until the shutdown ends, which could be well into this new year.

VAWA is considered landmark legislation for being the first federal legislation to recognize domestic violence as a serious crime. It’s been reauthorized three times in 2000, 2005 and 2013 — with bipartisan support, although not completely without opposition from those who believe that it’s an issue that should be dealt with on a state level. It’s a valid point — real change is often most effective when started organically from the bottom up; change individuals' hearts and that mentality eventually works its way to the top.

Yet, letting this law lapse is still a step backward. I’ve written previously about domestic violence and how society still has yet to really tackle or acknowledge the issue. VAWA’s expiration is an example of just how serious the lack of concern for this issue is. Violence toward family members and partners is still very much a large problem that leads to mental and emotional health trauma, broken families and homicide.

It would be fair to acknowledge, however, that VAWA’s expiration didn’t come without some retaliation. It was originally set to expire on Sept. 30, but was given a temporary extension. The act was approved for another extension until Feb. 8, but was tied to the federal budget that failed to pass. Regardless, it will still need reauthorization.

But why was it allowed to expire in the first place? Shouldn’t aiding victims and educating others about ending domestic violence, sexual assault and other serious crimes be something everyone can agree on as an important issue? “It’s deeply concerning,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted in regard to the act’s expiration.

2018 was witness to the Women’s March, an enormous rise in the #MeToo movement and even saw a large number of female candidates win elections. Even the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh sparked conversation about the treatment of women and toxic masculinity — an episode that closely echoes the Clarence Thomas hearing and Anita Hill testimony that preceded the original passing of VAWA.

Yet, even after all this, not much has changed in the 24 years since VAWA was signed. Domestic violence and abuse, sexual assault and stalking are still large, pervasive problems in the United States, with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the states having experienced physical aggression from an intimate partner.

Letting VAWA lapse is a step back and sends a message that victims are not taken any more seriously than they were in 1994. Instead of making our country safer by protecting victims and providing education to youths about preventing these crimes, VAWA was largely forgotten in the larger budget debates.

This isn’t to say that VAWA should be top priority or that it’s a perfect law that doesn’t need to be reviewed once in a while. The problem is that letting a strong, landmark women’s rights law expire is a symptom of the deeper problem. Despite unrelenting pressure and consistently making headlines over the last 18 months, not much has changed.

8 comments on this story

The new year is starting with a government shutdown and an expired Violence Against Women Act. At the same time, a wave of newly elected women will be taking their spots in Congress. Can these powerful women work with their powerful male colleagues and combine their voices to get the right results? There are a lot of questions facing this wave of feminism and the #MeToo movement. Will the issue of women’s rights continue and the pressure to make real change eventually have results, or will it only be another passing fad?

If this wave of women’s rights is going to be any different, then it’s vital for activists not to become discouraged and lose motivation, as we’ve seen with other social movements who run out of energy before opportunity. Is revealing the true nature of a few Hollywood executives enough, or will they continue to put pressure on individuals and legislators to not let the issue go? Time will tell, but not letting VAWA expire could be a good place to start.