As a new government shutdown deadline looms and Congress debates which federal programs to fund, one thing is clear: women’s lives are not a part of their equation. For so many of our elected officials, building a border wall is a bigger priority than protecting the one in four women who experience severe intimate partner violence.

The solution is also clear (even if it doesn’t go far enough), reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has already led to a 72 percent decline in partner violence by providing critical social services to survivors of abuse.


It sank into the purgatory of short-term funding extensions while efforts to authorize its renewal went nowhere. Funding has been given a temporary reprieve as part of the current continuing resolution that keeps the government operating until Dec. 21. But let’s be clear, that is only a stopgap measure.

VAWA will expire altogether if it is not reauthorized for extended periods, as it has been in the past.

How did we get here? Just a few short weeks ago, the national conversation focused on sexual assault and violence against women in the context of the confirmation of Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court sides with murder defendant in major evidentiary ruling Ossoff and Collins clash over her past support for voting rights legislation Supreme Court rejects Trump's bid to shield records from Jan. 6 committee MORE to fill a lifetime appointment on our nation’s highest court. The Kavanaugh hearing perfectly reflected the real institutional attitudes toward ending violence against women — speak platitudes and then do nothing. It’s no wonder survivors don’t come forward, choose not to report and data only scratches the surface of what’s really going on behind closed doors and in workplaces across the country.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearing and the “Year of the Woman” elections of 1992 when record numbers of women gained office. It was championed by then-Sen. Joe BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE (D-Del.) who failed to stop the appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court after the Anita Hill Judiciary Committee hearings.

The landmark legislation is a primary source of federal funds for rape crisis centers, shelters, and legal assistance programs that serve those affected by sexual violence. It has been improved over the years, with provisions added to address sexual violence on campus, LGBTQ individuals, native women, and additional U-visas immigrant women escaping sexual assault. Until its most recent expiration, it had always been renewed with bipartisan support.

The latest iteration of VAWA was introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeBlack Democrats hammer Manchin for backing filibuster on voting rights A presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day New Texas law limiting abortion takes effect Thursday MORE (D-Texas) with 173 sponsors, all Democrats. Her proposal is based on extensive consultation with service providers, advocates, law enforcement, and other experts. In contrast, senators have yet to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. Indeed, six of the male senators now on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against renewal of VAWA in 2013. We shouldn’t be surprised. Time and time again, Congress has refused to enact sexual harassment policies that protect its own members and staff.

In February, the House approved stronger protections for survivors of harassment and abuse by staff and lawmakers, only for the Senate to water down the terms in May. Then, in the midst of the Kavanaugh uproar, seven women who complained openly about suffering from sexual harassment while working in Congress, lost patience. They went public in a letter demanding that both houses of Congress agree on reforms to Capitol Hill’s misconduct policing system, calling it “antiquated, unfair, and traumatizing.” Their calls for change have gone unanswered. It’s not just partisanship that poisons the well; institutional interests on both sides of the Capitol are reflected in negotiations that have yet to result in protections for congressional staff.

Is it any wonder that so many people, and women in particular, are disaffected or worse by watching the inaction in the 115th Congress in general, and specifically regarding sexual harassment and assault? 

The 115th Congress has a final chance to get this right. They can reauthorize VAWA before it expires on Dec. 21 and we can all go into the holiday recess with a win for women.

And what if they don’t?

The 116th Congress must pick up the mantle and do the right thing. The incoming class of legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives is the most diverse in history. Elected with a focus on protecting health care coverage including abortion access, preventing gun violence, and so many other issues supported by the American people, we hope the House will also prioritize reauthorizing and increasing protections for those victimized and traumatized by sexual violence and harassment. We’ve learned too much from data collected through VAWA and in the hundreds of thousands of new voices and stories shared in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation. Building on the negligence of the last Congress is not an option. 

Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a 125-year-old grassroots organization.