Obama signs expanded Violence Against Women Act

President Barack Obama on Thursday heralded the expanded protections offered to Native Americans, gay, lesbian and transgender victims as well as undocumented immigrants in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) he signed into law.

"All women deserve to live free from fear," Obama said at a signing ceremony Thursday afternoon at the Interior Department.

The existing VAWA law, first enacted in 1994 to aid victims of domestic violence, offers programs and services to survivors, the criminal justice system and the community. The law established a national hotline for domestic violence, permitted the federal prosecution of interstate crimes, identifies dating violence and stalking as crimes of domestic violence, offers federal funding for rape crisis centers and other provisions.

"It didn’t just change the rules, it changed our culture," Obama said of the original legislation. "It made clear to victims that they were not alone, that they always had a place to go and they always had people on their side."

Obama said the law began a national dialogue about domestic violence and empowered people to speak out about the issue, which was once "too often seen as a private matter."

The president highlighted that the reauthorization signed Thursday closed a loophole for Native American women, whose non-Native partners were essentially immune from prosecution because tribal police would not arrest non-Native men and local police would not make arrests on Indian reservations.

For gay, lesbian and transgender survivors, the new bill allows federal funding to be directed to LGBT-related efforts to help survivors.

Obama dedicated Thursday's events to all domestic violence survivors. "This is your victory," the president said.

The bill passed in Congress on Feb. 28 authorizes funding for more rape kits and a national registry of forensic evidence, strengthens trafficking statutes and makes other new provisions in addition to expanding coverage for more survivors. Men are covered under the law, but it's called the Violence Against Women Act because women are disproportionally victims in domestic violence.

A House version of the bill, favored by some Republicans, did not contain expansions for additional survivors and other measures contained in the version crafted by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which both chambers ultimately approved.

The president was joined at Thursday's ceremony by Vice President Joe Biden, who as a Delaware senator authored the original VAWA legislation in 1994, members of Congress including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, women’s organizations and advocates, law enforcement officials, tribal leaders and domestic violence survivors.

Biden, who introduced the president Thursday, championed the VAWA reauthorization, but noted that work remains to be done on the issue.

"There are still too many women in this country who live in fear of violence," Biden said.