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Rep. Rush: Epidemic of Violence Against Women Demands a Federal Response

March 26, 2021
Op-ed

Two weeks ago, a Chicago woman was found dead, bound and gagged in a West Side alley. While the details of this case remain under investigation, it brought the brutal issue of violence against women rearing back into the headlines.

The epidemic of violence against women is longstanding enough that it rarely grabs headlines, but widespread enough that it should. One in three U.S. women experience domestic violence. At 42%, the rate of domestic violence among women in Illinois is notably higher than the national average.

The Chicago Police Department made more than 10,000 domestic violence related arrests and received 193,800 domestic violence related calls in 2019, the last year for which there is available data. Between 2001 and 2017, 75 women, a majority of them Black women, were strangled or smothered in Chicago. Most of their cases remain unsolved. In the wake of the reporting on this crisis, I asked the FBI to intervene and start processing backlogged evidence and held a community alert meeting to hear from local law enforcement and family members of the victims.

But as our communities went into lockdowns to the fight the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic early last year, surveys from around the world showed domestic abuse spiking dramatically. In Chicago, domestic violence calls went up 18% in the first weeks of the pandemic. Two factors common in domestic violence cases — isolation and economic insecurity — were exacerbated by a pandemic that compelled us to stay home and sparked the highest number of American job losses since the Great Depression.

There is no single magic bullet that will end the scourge of domestic violence. There is, however, one proven tool that previously helped bring domestic violence rates to historic lows — and we’re not using it. The Violence Against Women Act, also known as VAWA, established a robust federal response to domestic violence for the first time in U.S. history, and helped ensure survivors had access to essential services and to justice.

We know VAWA works. Since its passage in 1994, the rate of domestic violence in the United States has declined by 63%. But under Republican leadership, VAWA expired in 2018. When Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 2019, one of our top priorities was reauthorizing VAWA, and we did it in a strong bipartisan vote. Unsurprisingly and inexcusably, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to call the bill up for a vote in the Senate.

On March 17, I proudly joined my colleagues in the House to pass House Resolution 1620, a new VAWA reauthorization bill for the new congressional session. Beyond simply reauthorizing the landmark legislation, H.R. 1620 makes several improvements including investing in sexual harassment and domestic violence prevention and expanding access to housing for domestic violence survivors. The bill would also improve conditions for women in federal custody and the criminal justice response to gender-based violence and emphasize better supporting communities of color.

To put it plainly, the Violence Against Women Act saves lives. H.R. 1620 will save even more. VAWA should never have been allowed to expire. As we pass two years without VAWA’s protections, it’s imperative that the Senate immediately take up its reauthorization.

The fight against domestic violence can’t end when the issue fades from the headlines, when Women’s History Month is over, or when the pandemic finally begins to recede into our collective memory. It’s imperative that we keep up both public attention and the legislative fight for proven solutions to address domestic violence. Our loved ones, our friends, and our communities deserve nothing less.