- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2013

President Obama signed into law an expanded Violence Against Women Act that gives gays more access to anti-domestic violence resources and grants more authority to American Indian courts.

Standing alongside domestic-violence survivors, tribal leaders, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and several lawmakers, Mr. Obama signed the extension of the bill during a ceremony Thursday at the Interior Department.

“This is your day. This is the day of the advocates, the day of the survivors. This is your victory,” Mr. Obama said. “This victory shows that when the American people make their voices heard, Washington listens.”

Earlier Thursday new government data demonstrated that the country had made progress in decreasing the number of violent incidents against women.

The rate of sexual violence against women and girls age 12 or older fell 64 percent over the last decade and has remained stable for five years, the Justice Department reported Thursday. Still, Mr. Obama said, 1 in 5 women will still be raped in their lifetime.

The president usually signs bills at the White House, but he said Interior provided a larger space for many public officials and advocates who worked on the legislation. Interior also oversees programs for American Indians, and a key provision of the new law bolsters federal protections for victims attacked on tribal land.

Before signing the bill, Mr. Obama heaped praise on Mr. Biden, who as a senator sponsored the original bill in 1994.

“One of the great legacies of this law is it didn’t just change the rules, it changed our culture,” Mr. Obama said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.”

Mr. Obama also singled out Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine for a special word of thanks for supporting the bill despite opposition from many in her party.

The law strengthens criminal justice statutes for crimes against women. Congress easily renewed the law twice since 1994, but it lapsed in 2011 when Republicans wouldn’t agree to some of the new provisions Democrats wanted to add. Republicans held up a Senate-passed version that required states to include gays in federally funded or supported programs, and gave a legal status to illegal-immigrant domestic-violence victims.

The final version also allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who attack their Native American partners on tribal lands. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that tribes don’t have criminal authority over non-Indians, even if a crime be committed on Indian land.

After Mr. Obama called on Congress to pass the bill in his State of the Union Address in February, House Republicans agreed to schedule it for a vote. It passed 286-138.

The renewal provides some $659 million a year over five years to fund current programs that provide grants for transitional housing, legal assistance, law enforcement training and hotlines. It also has provisions to combat sex trafficking, adds stalking to the list of crimes that make immigrants eligible for protection, and authorizes additional funds for rape investigations as well as educational programs aimed at curbing sexual assault on college campuses.