Last month, we celebrated Women’s History Month and the reauthorization and modernization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). We honored the progress society has made since the original VAWA passed in 1994, and we also acknowledged the work ahead to make equality real for all. As I said then, “Preventing and ending violence creates a more equal and equitable world for women and girls, and people of all genders who experience harm.” April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month – this month, we lift up and believe survivors; express our endless gratitude to service providers and advocates; and rededicate ourselves to ending sexual violence.
As President Biden said in his remarks celebrating VAWA reauthorization, those who worked on the original law in the 1990s – including our own Deputy Attorney General, Lisa O. Monaco – and those who worked on VAWA 2022 did not only set out to change the law, but to change the culture as well. Too many communities and individuals, such as persons with disabilities and People of Color, experience sexual violence at disproportionate rates. And these survivors are our loved ones, coworkers, and members of our communities: more than 33% of women and nearly 25% of men have experienced physical sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Department’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is embracing this spirit of changing the culture in many fiscal year (FY) 2022 grant award solicitations by prioritizing efforts to prevent and end sexual assault. This may include activities such as improving outreach, services, and support for survivors of sexual assault, investing in survivor-centered improvements to the criminal justice process, and addressing online abuse, harassment, and sexual exploitation. OVW’s Sexual Assault Services Program (SASP) also reaches every state and territory. In a recent year, SASP subgrantees reported providing services to 46,280 survivors of sexual assault. For FY 2023, OVW has requested $100 million for SASP funding – nearly double the funding SASP received from Congress for FY 2022 – to significantly increase awards to states and territories, enabling rape crisis centers to serve tens of thousands more survivors each year.
It is devastating that for many, sexual abuse begins in childhood. Every child deserves to grow up in a safe and loving home. The CDC estimates that one in four girls and one in 13 boys will suffer child sexual abuse – more common than many of us are aware. Healing Services for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse is a newly launched, OVW-funded virtual course that focuses on this significant issue and provides resources for those who serve domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, many of whom may also be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The course provides lessons about survivors, the impact of trauma, trauma-informed approaches to healing, and a module for SASP administrators. The course was developed by the Resource Sharing Project through OVW funding.
VAWA 2022 also strengthens the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s ability to prosecute those who commit sexual assault under color of law. Most of these offenses disproportionately affect women, including transgender women, and prior to VAWA 2022, they were misdemeanors punishable by less than one year in prison. Under VAWA 2022, all forms of sexual assault committed under color of law are felonies with penalties based on severity of the conduct. In addition, VAWA 2022 made it a strict liability federal crime for federal law enforcement officers to engage in sexual conduct with those who are under arrest, under supervision, in detention, or in federal custody – meaning that consent is no longer a defense to such conduct. In closing this consent loophole with regard to federal law enforcement offers and by bringing parity to the penalty structure for sexual misconduct committed under color of law at all levels of government, VAWA 2022 not only gives the Department the tools it needs to hold individuals accountable but strengthens our ability to vindicate the constitutional rights of survivors.
DOJ-funded services are essential for survivors, and OVW and the Department’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) grantees create projects and programs that meaningfully and compassionately address sexual violence. If you or someone you know is experiencing or has experienced sexual violence, there are many services available to help, including the Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), and the StrongHearts Native Helpline, 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483). In addition, you can find a local resources page on OVW’s website, which lists state sexual assault coalitions that can direct you to local resources and services, as well as opportunities to get involved. OVC also has a featured resources website for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I want all survivors to know: you are not alone.