What Women Can Expect from a Biden Presidency: On Ending Violence Against Women

In terms of women’s right to be free from violence, the Trump administration was brutal. Reversing this damage is a key part of President-Elect Joe Biden’s pledge to pursue an “aggressive and comprehensive plan to further women’s economic and physical security and ensure that women can fully exercise their civil rights.”

What Women Can Expect from a Biden Presidency: On Ending Violence Against Women
The Obama administration’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: President-Elect Biden’s platform for women promises to be the most ambitious presidential agenda yet addressing issues that affect women and girls in the U.S. and around the globe. This piece is the third of a multi-part series covering the agenda, in areas including: health careeconomic securitywork and familyviolence and security and the Equal Rights Amendment, among others.

New installations of the series will be released on Wednesdays. Get caught up here.

In terms of women’s right to be free from violence, the Trump administration was brutal.

During his presidency, the Violence Against Women Act expired for the first time since 1994. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos eviscerated Title IX protections against sexual assault on college campuses. The Trump administration’s immigration policies blocked immigrant women experiencing domestic violence from seeking help. Trump even opposed a United Nations Security Council resolution to end rape as a weapon of war until the Council deleted any mention of sexual and reproductive health and weakened references to the International Criminal Court, making it harder for women and girls to seek justice.

Trump incessantly modeled abusive masculinity, from physically stalking Hillary Clinton on the debate stage in 2016, to recently encouraging his supporters who conspired to kidnap and kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. As Jackson Katz wrote for Ms.:

“Donald Trump’s behavior has so dramatically lowered the bar for what is and should be expected of adult male behavior that it will take years to undo the regression.”

Reversing this damage is a key part of President-Elect Joe Biden’s pledge to pursue an “aggressive and comprehensive plan to further women’s economic and physical security and ensure that women can fully exercise their civil rights.” He has his work cut out for him.

Biden has provided details for how he will accomplish this pledge in an ambitious platform for women’s rights focused in five areas: health care, economic security, work and family, violence against women, and global women’s rights.

Biden’s pledge to end violence against women centers on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), restoring Title IX protections against sexual harassment and assault on college campuses, and increasing protections and programs for women in marginalized communities—including Native American women, adolescent girls of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, older women, women and girls with disabilities, immigrant women, and women service members.

What Women Can Expect from a Biden Presidency: On Ending Violence Against Women
Women’s March in Calgary, Canada, in January 2017. (JMacPherson / Flickr)

Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act

President-elect Joe Biden was one of the original sponsors and strongest advocates for the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which created a national hotline for victims, funded shelters and crisis centers, trained law enforcement in communities across the country so they were better prepared to investigate violence against women and support survivors of violence, and helped change the way Americans understand and fundamentally view violence against women.

Biden later led efforts to renew and strengthen VAWA in 2000, 2005 and 2013, which expanded protections to especially vulnerable communities, including immigrant women, rural women, Native American women and LGBTQ+ people. Biden introduced and helped pass the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008 and, as vice president, he established the first White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. He later led the Obama administration’s efforts to address campus sexual assault.

Republicans have blocked reauthorization of VAWA. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring the bill to the floor in the Senate—in part because of opposition to a provision that would keep firearms out of the hands of abusers by closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” and “stalking loophole.”

Right now, the law only prohibits firearm purchases for people who are “married to, lived with, or have a child with the victim” and who have been convicted of an abuse felony or are under a restraining order.

In his platform for women’s rights, one of Biden’s top first 100-day priorities will be to finally reauthorize VAWA. The law would close the boyfriend loophole and stalking loophole by lowering the criminal threshold to bar someone from buying a gun to include unmarried partners and misdemeanor convictions of stalking and domestic abuse. To assist survivors, the law would expand the safety net for survivors of domestic and sexual violence by establishing a new coordinated housing initiative, expanding access to housing assistance, and protecting survivors from housing discrimination.

The law would also provide cash assistance to survivors to help build safety and security; allow survivors to access their retirement savings as they rebuild their lives; and guarantee paid domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking safe leave.

Restoring Title IX Protections Against Campus Sexual Assault

In 2011, the Biden administration launched a federal initiative to end widespread sexual violence on college campuses and administrative coverups.

But when the Trump administration took over the federal government in 2017, all of this came to a screeching halt. Since the appointment of Betsy DeVos soon after, she has been on a relentless crusade to erode Title IX protections for survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

Biden pledges to restore the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines and increase fines imposed on colleges for that fail to report statistics about campus safety (Clery Act violations). He will expand survivors’ reporting rights and options on college campuses and develop stronger enforcement protocols to oversee reporting under the U.S. Department of Education.

What Women Can Expect from a Biden Presidency: On Ending Violence Against Women
A rally to stand with rape survivors in Minneapolis on December 17, 2016. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

He also pledges to expand prevention and services to public K-12 schools and expand requirements for comprehensive sexual assault, stalking and dating violence prevention education on college campuses.

(Read about Trump’s current attempts to tie the Biden administration’s hands and obstruct his women’s rights agenda.)

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Protecting Women in Marginalized Communities

Women of color experience particularly high rates of violence. For example, more than one in two Native women are subject to sexual violence in their lives, with more than one in seven experiencing it in the past year, and murder is the third leading cause of death of Native women.

What Women Can Expect from a Biden Presidency: On Ending Violence Against Women
2019 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

The “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” traps many young women of color in the juvenile justice system. A recent national survey revealed immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking are increasingly afraid to contact police, pursue civil or criminal cases, or go to court to seek safety. People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities.

Biden pledges to strengthen and expand VAWA’s reach to women in marginalized communities by expanding support for targeted, community-driven strategies—including trauma-informed and culturally-specific programs that address complex community needs and focus on the development of holistic prevention and intervention services for survivors from racial and ethnic minority communities, expand pathways to safety for survivors, and build community leadership to prevent and address domestic violence and sexual assault.

His pledge includes proposals for specific groups:

For Native American women, Biden will:

  • Reaffirm tribal sovereignty and expand the crimes for which tribes can exercise special criminal jurisdiction, including sexual assault, stalking, child violence and trafficking;
  • Recognize tribes’ inherent power to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders who commit domestic violence, dating violence, or violate a protection order;
  • Expand federal resources for Alaska Native and American Indian women and girls impacted by violence and abuse;
  • Address the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women by working to close the data gap, increase funding and support for tribes in building their own programs, expand tribal authority, grow coordination among law enforcement agencies and provide additional resources to tribal enforcement, expand access to culturally sensitive resources for survivors, and ensure Native people are at the table, listened to, and part of the solution.

For adolescent girls of color, Biden will:

  • Reinvest in the National Girls Initiative of the Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to support communities and schools to develop gender-specific and trauma-informed prevention and treatment programs and services as alternatives to girls being placed in juvenile detention;
  • Expand funding for the VAWA Consolidated Youth Program.

For LGBTQ+ individuals, Biden will:

For older women, Biden will:

  • Commission the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct the first-ever national prevalence study on intimate partner and sexual violence on women and men ages 50 and older;
  • Expand the Elder Justice AmeriCorps program to include a dedicated focus on legal advocacy for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, including the sexual abuse of older adults in nursing homes;
  • Increase funding for communities to build multidisciplinary teams to prevent and address violence against older women, with a focus on investing in rural communities with aging populations.

For women and girls with disabilities, Biden will:

For immigrant women, Biden will:

  • Push to repeal extreme, anti-immigrant state laws that have a chilling effect on the ability of immigrant domestic violence, sexual assault survivors, and other victims of crimes to seek safety and justice;
  • Ensure that women migrants are safeguarded against abuse or sexual assault and treated with dignity, including by providing feminine care products, banning the shackling of pregnant women, and protecting access to reproductive health care services;
  • Follow the advice of public health experts to vastly reduce the number of people in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol during a pandemic by releasing to their families or community-based care organizations those individuals in immigration detention, parents and children, who pose no risk to the community. More generally, Biden adamantly opposes Trump’s policy of separating parents from their children and building a wall on the southern border, and he supports alternatives to detention.

For women fleeing violence and seeking asylum, Biden will:

  • End Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and restore our asylum laws so that they do what they should be designed to do—protect people fleeing persecution and who cannot return home safely;
  • Ensure women refugees and asylum seekers have access to necessary services and protections;
  • Reinstate explicit asylum protections—rescinded by the Trump Administration—for domestic violence and sexual violence survivors, whose home governments cannot or will not protect them. 
  • Increase visas for domestic violence survivors, ending processing delays, and tripling the current cap of 10,000 on U-visas and ensure applicants are not detained or deported while their applications are in process.

For women service members and veterans, Biden will:

  • Immediately appoint a commission comprised of current and former military leaders, military sexual assault survivors and their advocates, and prominent sexual assault experts, to make concrete recommendations to him within 90 days for addressing sexual assault and harassment in the military.

Biden has also pledged to address online harassment, reduce the rape kit backlog (an issue Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris is committed to as well), increase public education awareness on bystander intervention, and enact policies to help survivors during the pandemic:

  • Convene a National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse, allocate new funding for law enforcement training to tackle online abuse, and support federal and state legislation creating a civil and criminal cause of action for unauthorized disclosure of intimate images;
  • Create Regional Sexual Assault Investigative Training Academies, which will provide cutting-edge, evidence-based and trauma-informed training, increase funding for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, and ensure that law enforcement training addresses attitudes that lead to the neglect of testing for rape kits;
  • Launch a new friends and family public awareness campaign that will highlight information about evidence-based bystander intervention, including what to do if you witness or become aware of abuse taking place, how to safely intervene, and when to get help;
  • Enact specific policies to support women facing domestic violence and sexual assault during COVID-19.

President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious platform for women’s rights will go a long way toward ending violence against women.

While many of these policies require Congressional action—which is why winning the two Georgia Senate seats is critical—some of the policies Biden can implement within the executive branch without congressional approval.

And women will be better off as a result.

Get caught up on the Ms. 16 Days of Activism collection.

Get caught up on the other prongs of Biden’s women’s agenda:

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.