Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

As a result of battered women and their advocates’ grassroots advocacy and organizing, the Violence Against Women Act became law in 1995. The passage of VAWA marked the acknowledgment by the United States government of the government’s responsibility to change legal, social and cultural norms and the need for dedicated support services and improved response from the justice system. Efforts to enact and reauthorize VAWA have included the groundswell of Native women who organized to engage tribal, state, and federal systems to hold governments accountable to address the lasting effects of colonization, namely the continued crisis of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, trafficking and abductions and homicides, especially unsolved cases of American Indian and Alaska Native women.

The VAWA has been reauthorized three times: 2000, 2005, and 2013. The tribal amendments under VAWA highlight the need to address violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and the important role of tribes in the full implementation of VAWA. Many barriers and questions present themselves concerning tribal jurisdiction, law enforcement availability, lack of culturally appropriate comprehensive services and victim advocates, and availability of emergency shelters and rape crisis services. With each reauthorization, the national movement has achieved key amendments in support of tribal authority and resources needed to increase the safety of Native women:

  • 1994— VAWA included a 4% dedicated funding stream for federally recognized tribes with a statutory purpose of “developing, enlarging, or strengthening programs addressing the needs and circumstances of Indian tribes in dealing with violent crimes, including sexual assault and domestic violence, against women.”
  • 2000— VAWA increased the tribal dedicated funding stream from 4% to 5%, provided increased clarity regarding tribal court protection orders and enforcement, and created a tribal coalition grant program.
  • 2005— VAWA included a Safety for Indian Women Title, recognizing the unique legal relationship of the United States to Indian tribes and women, authorized the creation of a single VAWA tribal grant program, increased the dedicated tribal funding stream to a minimum of 10%, added dating violence as a new purpose area, created a Deputy Director for Tribal Affairs position, and mandated annual tribal-federal VAWA consultations.
  • 2013— VAWA included a key amendment affirming inherent tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians committing domestic violence, dating violence, or certain violation of protection orders on tribal lands, known as Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ). It provided increased funding for the OVW tribal coalition’s program and recognized sex trafficking as a new purpose area under the tribal grants program.
  • 2021— Introduced on March 8, 2021, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021, H.R. 1620, reauthorizes VAWA grant programs. It calls for the end of impunity for non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse co-occurring with domestic violence, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands. It also recognizes the need to support the authority of Alaska tribes excluded from the definition of Indian country to exercise special tribal jurisdiction over these crimes through the creation of a pilot program.

The purposes for the enactment of the Safety for Indian Women Title provides an overview of the goals Congress intended to accomplish through Title IX of the VAWA 2005 and provides clarity for the implementation of the VAWA through three purpose areas, see below. The Safety for Indian Women Title links the decrease of violence against Indian women to the increased capacity of Indian tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to protect Indian women and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

Purposes of VAWA 2005. §902:

  • to decrease the incidence of violent crimes against Indian women;
  • to strengthen the capacity of Indian tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to respond to violent crimes committed against Indian women; and
  • to ensure that perpetrators of violent crimes committed against Indian women are held accountable for their criminal behavior.