Earlier this month, I visited Nevada and heard a heartbreaking story of a woman whose sister was killed by her abusive husband. I learned that Nevada has some of the worst rates of homicides among women victims murdered by men. It’s an important reminder for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which concluded on Thursday, of how far we’ve come and how much we still have to do.
In 1991, a woman named Marla Hanson took the stand before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the request of the committee chair, my husband, Joe Biden. She was a model in New York who had been attacked by men hired by her landlord after she refused his advances. She told the senators of the 150 stitches she needed after their razors cut her face and how, when her case went to trial, she was the one blamed by the public, defense lawyer, and even her own family for being out alone at night in the city.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the signing og the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—the legislation that grew out of Ms. Hanson’s testimony and that of other abuse, assault and rape survivors. It was their stories, courage and grit that inspired my husband to sit down with his staff and write the bill in his own hand. But it didn’t pass the year Ms. Hanson testified, or the year after, or the year after that.
Many of Joe’s colleagues were set against it. They thought we shouldn’t so harshly punish what they saw as a “private family matter.” The U.S. Department of Justice opposed the bill. Even the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court tried to stop the law before it was passed.
For four years, Joe and his fellow senators kept fighting. And, in 1994, they succeeded.
Now, 25 years after the act was signed into law, we have so much progress to celebrate: In the years after it passed, incidents of serious victimization by an intimate partner declined by more than 70 percent. A 24-hour national hotline saves lives every day. Billions of dollars in federal grants have been given to shelters and programs that prevent violence against women. The victories we made through the Violence Against Women Act were hard-won — and we can’t go back.
Around the country, and here in Nevada, there is still so much left to do to stop abuse and save lives. The state ranks fourth in the nation for women who are murdered by partners, according to the Violence Policy Center.
A few years ago, a woman came up to me at an event with a chocolate cake. “Jill, I don’t have much,” she told me, “but I had to do something to show you how much you and your husband mean to me. My sister wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for your husband’s work on domestic violence. The hotline saved her life — and we’ll forever be grateful.”
The story of her sister’s survival could be the story of vulnerable women across Nevada. Better yet, with more education, prevention and support, we could help women before they have to make that call. But it takes leadership and commitment to keep pushing forward. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are hard to talk about sometimes, but we need leaders who aren’t afraid to stand up and speak up for women and men facing violence.
— Jill Biden is the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a Democratic presidential candidate.