What the Government Shutdown Means for Sexual Assault Victims

US Capitol Building. WIll it remain empty?

US Capitol Building. WIll it remain empty?

Typically, Victims Fall Through the Cracks

by Ethan Klee, Unspoken Voices Board Member

Regardless of party lines and pointing fingers, it is generally sensible that a government not taking action is a government not speaking or acting for its people. In the passing weeks we are in the thralls of the latest government shutdown - according to Time Magazine, the now third longest government shutdown in US history. Passing sixteen days is a threshold that has only been seen twice before, the last being in October of 2013. Government employees go without paychecks in the duration, but they may be the least of the victims of the shutdown.

In 1994, then Senator Joe Biden sponsored an act called the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA), and in the last week, the government shutdown became the reason for this act’s expiration. This act is responsible for the first federally funded hotline for women in peril to call for help, and within one year of this hotline being put into effect, over two million women “had the courage – the courage – to try to get out of earshot of their abuser, escape from the prison of their own home… and call to [the] line” according to Joe Biden in a 2014 press release.

Beyond the hotline, the Violence Against Women’s Act strengthened penalties for rapists, blocked defendants from using a victim’s sexual history against them or in place of a character witness, and ensured that survivors never pay for their own rape exams. In a recent expose on the matter, Time Magazine as well as online publication Now This Politics sited a 67% decrease in the rate of intimate partner violence between 1993 and 2010, a 35% decrease in intimate partner homicides of women from 1993 to 2007.

A human rights act with this kind of success rate is relatively rare in US politics, so why would the act be left to expire? Fortunately, both the House and the Senate tried to extend the VAWA’s funding until Feb 2019. However the current POTUS actively refuses and refutes any spending deal that does not pay for the Mexico/US border wall.

Though this is classified a partial shutdown, there are currently still nine federal departments and a handful of other agencies that are without any funding, developing after the Congressional leaders and the White House could not come to terms on a spending deal that POTUS Donald Trump refuses to let leave his desk until it includes money for the US/Mexico border wall. “The government is supposed to be funded through an annual process that involves Congress passing 12 appropriations bills to fund all the different government agencies. If this process is not completed by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, the government partially or completely shuts down.” informs Political Journalist Abigail Abrams.

While for the departments in question the funding could eventually be restored when the government turns back on their electric bill, this will not restore funding to the VAWA unless the Department of Justice or Health and Human Services administer their funding towards re-authorizing the act. This proves to be a battle as the last time a re-authorization was administered, it took a political battle as some politicians took issue with “provisions that offered new protections for Native women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi posits.

"This is not a partisan issue," a letter from 46 house republicans addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy urged. "VAWA has been continually reauthorized on a bipartisan basis in Congress. We must act now to maintain and strengthen this critical law.

We can only hope that our current political atmosphere holds the same amount of urgency, as the livelihoods and protection of victims nationwide may depend on it.


Abrams, A. (2019, January 07). This Is Now the Third-Longest Government Shutdown in History. Retrieved January 07, 2019, from http://time.com/5494109/shutdown-third-longest-us-history/


Gathright, J. (2018, December 24). Violence Against Women Act Expires Because Of Government Shutdown. Retrieved January 07, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/2018/12/24/679838115/violence-against-women-act-expires-because-of-government-shutdown