Violence Against Women in the United States
minnesota texas new york

last updated August 2011

Population of women:  155.9 million
Life expectancy of women (at birth):  80.93
School life expectancy for women:  17 (2008 est.)
Adult illiteracy for women:  1% (2003 est.)
Unemployment of women:  8.1%
Adult economic activity rate:  58%


In the United States (U.S.), there are two distinct systems of law that address violence against women (VAW): federal law that applies to the entire U.S. and state law that applies to each state. In order to understand why both systems exist and how they work together, it is necessary to give a brief explanatory note about the U.S. federal system of government.

The United States is a coalition of 50 states organized under a national, or federal, government. Each state has its own government and laws, but the U.S. Constitution states that the laws of the federal government are the “Supreme Law of the Land.” However, the extent to which the federal government can control activities within each state is limited to the authority granted to it by the U.S. Constitution. Unless the U.S. Constitution grants power to the federal government to control or regulate certain activities, it can neither regulate nor direct the states on how to regulate such activities. Thus, outside of the sphere of federal authority, the individual state governments can operate fairly independently and without constraint, so long as they are not violating other parts of the Constitution.

Several areas of governance traditionally have been considered to be reserved to the states. Most notably, states are considered to have authority and control to exercise “police powers” with respect to their residents or the visitors to their jurisdiction. Such authority enables each state government to act in the interest of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of its residents or visitors. Thus, the power to enact laws prohibiting acts of violence against women traditionally would be the prerogative of the individual state governments because such authority falls within the police powers reserved to each state.

However, as federalism and Constitutional law have evolved over time, the federal government’s reach into traditionally state-governed affairs has expanded considerably. Today, there are several Constitutional grounds upon which the federal government may base legislation and policy initiatives addressing violence against women and related issues.

·   Commerce Clause: Under the “Commerce Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has the power to enact laws relating to or affecting commercial activity among the states. This power has grown to allow the federal government to legislate just about anything that can have a “rational relationship” to interstate commerce, even if that relationship consists only of a cumulative effect. Where the activity sought to be regulated is not itself economic in nature, the government must show that it has a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce. Today, the interstate commerce rationale provides a legitimate basis for federal legislation dealing with VAW-related issues, such as trafficking in women, where the conduct implicated is conducted across state lines.

·   Fourteenth Amendment: Another basis for federal legislation dealing with gender issues is found in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits unequal treatment of groups of people based on distinctions of race, gender, national origin, etc. The Fourteenth Amendment allows the federal government to intervene where some action taken by a state (i.e., some involvement by a government entity) may cause discrimination, such as a state law that results in unequal treatment of women. An act of discrimination by a state based on gender can only be justified if it furthers an important government interest in a way that is substantially related to that interest. The Fourteenth Amendment provides a legal basis for laws targeting gender-based discrimination.

·   Spending Clause: While the federal government does not have the authority to mandate behavior by the states, it may seek to influence state law through federal grant programs and other incentives. The so-called “Spending Clause” of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to tax and spend money for the general welfare of the people. Under the rubric of the Spending Clause, the federal government may adopt spending programs that would encourage states to take measures to eliminate gender-based discrimination or address sexual harassment. As the following sections will demonstrate, the U.S. approach to combating VAW-related issues often takes two forms – (1) laws directly prohibiting certain acts and (2) federally funded initiatives and grant programs to assist states in combating VAW.



Federal Laws and Policies section was Compiled from:

Department of Labor: (2009)
UN Indicators on income and economic activity:
Federalism in the U.S. Constitution
Cornell Law - Commerce Clause
Cornell Law - Intermediate Scrutiny
Cornell Law – Equal Protection
Spending Clause
Gender Discrimination
The Daily Collegian, « United States ranks 19th in gender equality »
Gender Discrimination : Applicable Laws
« The Global Gender Gap Report »
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sex-Based Changes
Federal Trade Commission: Equal Credit Opportunity Act
Fair Employment and Housing Act
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Equal Pay/Compensation Discrimination
“Gender Discrimination and the Family Medical Leave Act”
U.S. Department of Education: Title IX
Legal Momentum – “History of the Violence Against Women Act”
Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse
Domestic Violence Resource Center
The Hotline – « Violence Against Women Act »
Outcomes of Custody and Visitation Petitions when Fathers Are Restrained by Protection Orders: The Case of the New York Family Courts, Leora N. Rosen and Chris S. O’Sullivan, Violence Against Women, vol. 11, no. 8, 1054 (August 2005). (PDF, 21 pages).
Child Custody and Visitation Decisions When the Father Has Perpetrated Violence Against the Mother, Allison C. Morrill, Jianyu Dai, Samantha Dunn, Iyue Sung, and Kevin Smith, Violence Against Women, vol. 11, no. 8, 1076 (August 2005). (PDF, 31 pages).
Custody Roundtable Is Unanimous: Abusers Are Winning Custody, and Courts Have Been Duped, Joan Zorza, Domestic Violence Report, 69 (June/July 2011).
The White House – “National Sexual Assault Awareness Month”
RAINN - Statistics
West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information & Services – Federal Sex Offense Laws
RAINN – Key Federal Laws
Center for Sex Offender Management - Resources
Security On Campus, Inc. – “Complying with the Jeanne Clery Act”
The Office of Justice Programs – “The Justice For All Act”
California State University – “Development of Sexual Harassment Law”
NOLO – Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Legal Momentum – Legal Resource Kit: Sexual Harassment in the Schools
U.S. Department of State – U.S. Laws on Trafficking in Persons
Polaris Project – State and Federal Laws
Northeastern University – Federal Human Trafficking Legislation
U.S. Department of State – « Trafficking in Persons Report 2010 » – United States Best Practices – T-Visa Laws and Trafficking – U Visa Laws for Crime Victims
United States Department of Justice – Office on Violence Against Women
The White House – “National Sexual Assault Awareness Month” – Government Action Plans
The Office of Justice Programs – “The Justice For All Act”
Partnership for a Secure America – “An Opportunity on Global Women’s Rights?”
United Nations Women – Support I-VAWA
Women Thrive Worldwide – The International Violence Against Women Act of 2010
News Medical – “The Atlantic Reports on Potential Challenges to Passage of the International Violence Against Women Act”