Supporting Survivors Must Matter—Even During a Government Shutdown

The Violence Against Women Act has expired in the midst of the ongoing federal government shutdown, creating anxiety and doubt about the future of programs that help survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—and dealing another setback to the #MeToo movement.

Congress allowed VAWA to expire during a government shutdown staged by Donald Trump in a fight over a border wall. That sends a powerful message that violence against women is not a national priority. (Caroline Gunston / Creative Commons)

VAWA was a landmark: In addition to funding critical services for survivors, it symbolized a national recognition of the urgency to address an epidemic. The act has been expanded in the decades since it first became law to strengthen services for rural, LGBTQ and indigenous sexual violence victims and youth affected by domestic violence, and it also funds education and prevention work to prevent violence long-term and shift culture. It remains the most significant piece of federal legislation addressing the national crisis of sexual and interpersonal violence. 

Signed into law in 1994, it had been re-authorized three times before it was most recently set to expire, in September 2018, but Congress had enacted short-term extensions that allowed it to continue through December. Thanks to the longest shutdown in American history, that extension lies dormant.

The expiration of VAWA has serious potential programmatic implications. There are a number of organizations that may need to curb or even halt the provision of crucial, life-saving services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault—and others that provide vital options such as emergency housing, legal assistance and crisis hotlines. 

The lapse also has symbolic implications. Allowing VAWA to expire sends a message that the issues it addresses are not a national priority, and can for now serve as just more collateral damage from a standoff over a border wall. This builds upon the backlash against the #MeToo movement that we’ve seen in responses to the Kavanaugh hearings and even built in to the Education Department’s current proposal to reverse Obama-era guidance on Title IX that protected students affected by campus sexual violence.

When the #MeToo movement catapulted gender-based violence into the spotlight, many of us who work in the field were cautiously optimistic that the time had come for real, lasting change. Something felt different. The needle had actually moved. The nation watched as survivors collectively gained strength and their voice in calling out their assaulters, and people listened to and believed them. Numerous convicted or alleged abusers were finally removed from positions of power. I was holding my breath each day—waiting for the next story to break, incredulous that a time of reckoning had arrived.

We have made real progress. College campuses, workplaces, religious organizations and other institutions are working to create climates free from sexual harassment and violence. Service providers throughout the country have reported major increases in survivor utilization of resources—since the #MeToo movement exploded into public awareness, services provided by RAINN went from serving approximately 15,000 victims per month to 22,000; during the Kavanaugh hearings, calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline increased by 338 percent. But the expiration of VAWA makes it clear that we are not done moving forward—and that we must continue to fight to protect and advance the gains we’ve won.

Protecting services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault should be seen across the country and by lawmakers across party lines as an essential and non-negotiable responsibility. That responsibility shouldn’t come with an expiration date.


Sarah McMahon is the director of Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, an associate professor in the university’s School of Social Work and a chancellor’s scholar for violence prevention.