Violence Against Women Act: What Congress Can Learn From Massachusetts

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently signed into law a new bill aimed at protecting the housing rights of survivors of sexual violence. S. 2402, known as “An Act Relative to Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault and Stalking,” was signed on January 3. It represents a significant victory for survivors’ advocates that have worked since 2008 on its passage, including the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Jane Doe, Inc.

Survivors of domestic abuse often cite the need for stable housing in order to recover from trauma. In Massachusetts, this has been a constant battle, with victims facing significant financial and legal hurdles while attempting to leave their homes or find new residence. S. 2402 counteracts these difficulties by:

1. Allowing survivors to terminate leases early without penalty if it can be shown that he or she is escaping a violent household;

2. Preventing landlords from evicting or discriminating in renting policies solely on the basis of the renter’s status as a victim of violence;

3. Providing legal rights to changing one’s locks in order to prevent violence or abuse.

In a statement released in early January, Patrick said, “We must do all we can do to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence.” Indeed, this rings true for the many victims and survivors of Massachusetts and around the country. Statewide, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men will experience non-rape physical violence. In 2010 alone, 2,564 assaults were reported to rape crisis centers across Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health calls sexual assault a “serious social and public health problem."

Nationally, 24 Americans are victims of physical assault, rape, or stalking every 60 seconds. And while an encouraging downward trend in domestic violence related homicides has emerged across the state, women’s groups and survivors’ advocates are demanding vigilance in order to stem the tide of violence that has become epidemic across all 50 states.

The success of S. 2402 is perhaps most notable in its timing, with its signage coming on the heels of the failure of the U.S. House of Representatives to renew the Violence Against Women Act. That law has been allowed to lapse, meaning appropriations for federally run programs such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has received over 3 million calls since its inception; funding for law enforcement training; and other state and local programs which have helped lower domestic abuse rates by 60%. Republicans oppose its reauthorization because of new additions that expand protection to Native Americans, LBGT, and immigrants.

While the fight to renew VAWA continues nationally, state groups in Massachusetts will continue to advocate for local victims. For those who spent more four years working on S. 2402, its passage represents a concrete victory, and will be invaluable for victims who are escaping dangerous households and reclaiming stability in new homes.

A full list of legislators and advocates who worked on this act can be found here.