Column: New law doesn’t do enough to prevent the violence and abuse women face behind closed doors

Angelina Jolie shakes hands with Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Angelina Jolie, who lobbied Congress to renew the Violence Against Women Act, is greeted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) after a Feb. 9 news conference on the updated law.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A couple of things unrelated to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine recently caught my eye, reminding me that while this conflict will eventually end, the violence visited upon women by loved ones is a war that endures.

I say “women” knowing full well that men and people with different gender identities are victims of domestic violence too. I’m using “women” as a shorthand, much the same way “men” has long stood for all of us, because women by far and away are victimized more often than men in intimate-partner relationships.

This is why the landmark legislation Joe Biden sponsored in 1994 when he was a senator and reauthorized last week as president is called the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA.

The law lapsed under President Trump, who was hardly a champion of women’s rights. The new version expands protections for survivors of partner violence and sexual assault.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian


It will also fund rape treatment centers, training for law enforcement and offer new federal protections to Native American women who are assaulted by non-Native perpetrators. This is one of the law’s most important achievements; in the past, if a non-Native person assaulted a Native person on tribal lands, the suspect would be referred to federal prosecutors, who frequently declined to prosecute, according to the Justice Department. Now such cases will be handled by tribal authorities.

The law had bipartisan support but, sadly, because of pushback from Republican gun worshipers, Congress was unable to use VAWA to close the “boyfriend loophole” in federal law. The loophole allows non-married partners to possess firearms even if they have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Currently, you must be married, living together or have a child in common for the firearms ban to apply.

This is lunacy, given that so many intimate-partner killings are committed by dating partners. In one analysis, 80% of domestic violence calls to Philadelphia police in 2013 involved non-married partners.

“A growing portion of the population is not protected by federal policies designed to keep guns out of the hands of abusers,” according to two University of Pennsylvania researchers who analyzed data in 2018. “Current boyfriends and girlfriends are a risk to their intimates.”

She was one of my best friends. Her husband murdered her after she told him the marriage was over.

So, those “couple of things” I mentioned above? They are reminders that while media interest in domestic violence waxes and wanes, it is an abiding problem. Whatever else is happening on the world stage at any moment, we can be sure that, behind closed doors, intimate partners are being bullied, harassed and attacked. Things only got worse during the pandemic, when families were locked up together for so many months.

On Tuesday, Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” let up on the comedy for a moment to broadcast his fears about the way Kanye West has been treating his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, and her current beau, Pete Davidson. What Noah did was extremely unusual, and praiseworthy.

West has engaged in an escalating war of words against Kardashian, and has been particularly nasty about “Saturday Night Live” star Davidson, releasing a video showing a Claymation version of Davidson being kidnapped, buried and decapitated.

You could chalk this behavior up to just another attention-grabbing celebrity train wreck, but Noah saw something darker.

“What we’re seeing,” said Noah, whose mother survived after being shot in the head by his stepfather in 2009, “is one of the most powerful, one of the richest women in the world, unable to get her ex to stop texting her, to stop chasing after her, to stop harassing her,” he said. “Just think about that for a moment. Think about how powerful Kim Kardashian is, and she can’t get that to happen.”

The next day, after West responded to Noah with a racial slur, Noah posted a long, compassionate message on West’s Instagram account: “I’ve woken up too many times and read headlines about men who’ve killed their exes, their kids and then, themselves,” wrote Noah. “I never want to read that headline about you.”

‘Kim Kardashian, if she cannot escape this, then what chance do normal women have?,’ Trevor Noah says of rapper Kanye West’s treatment of his ex wife.

Two weeks before Noah’s plea to West, the New York Times Magazine published a devastating story about the overlooked brain damaged suffered by women whose partners hit them. Researchers speculate that the damage, which occurs in private and is often untreated, can be worse than what football players experience. It amounts to a kind of slow murder.

“Even slight blows to the head, when repeated often enough, could result in long-term neurodegenerative disease,” wrote journalist Christa Hillstrom, who spent two years researching the piece, and led it with an account of a woman whose boyfriend hit her in the head so much that her hearing and memory were impaired. Her face was scarred and her scalp had a bald patch, and she suffered migraines, blurred vision and confusion.

Hillstrom interviewed Eve Valera, a Harvard associate professor of psychiatry who studies traumatic brain injuries among survivors of domestic violence. “Every year,” Hillstrom writes, “hundreds of concussions occur in the N.F.L.; thousands occur in the military. Valera’s estimated number of annual brain injuries among survivors of domestic abuse: 1.6 million.”

Like war itself, that notion is almost too distressing to contemplate. But we do know that, like war, intimate-partner violence can be inflicted anywhere, on anyone.