President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that extends for five years programs to help battered women and expands protections to Native Americans and gay-rights advocates.
“Today is about the millions of women -- the victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault -- who are out there right now looking for a lifeline, looking for support,” Obama said at a signing ceremony in Washington before an audience of women’s organizations, law enforcement officials, tribal leaders, survivors, advocates and lawmakers.
The president credited the law with bringing domestic violence out of the shadows. “It didn’t just change the rules; it changed our culture” to make it permissable to openly discuss domestic abuse, Obama said.
The extension of the law also grants American Indian tribal courts new powers to try people who aren’t members of the tribe. The law strengthens the criminal justice system’s response to crimes against women, including domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking, the White House said in a statement.
The extension authorizes as much as $660 million a year for programs to help protect women. The money would train more than 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and other personnel every year, according to the White House.
Enactment ends years of debate during which Democrats and Republicans accused each other of caring more about politics than about battered women.
The original law, almost two decades old, was first passed in 1994 and sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, the current vice president.
The program is administered by the Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services.
Under new provisions, the law specifically prohibits recipients of federal grants from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, giving a victory to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.
It also would allow tribes to try certain non-members who live or work on a reservation if they are accused of assaulting a member on reservation lands.
Under current law, tribes can’t try non-members for domestic-violence crimes committed against a member on a reservation. Human rights advocates argued that such conditions discouraged women from reporting cases because they thought federal prosecutors, often hundreds of miles away, would ignore them.
The law authorizes $222 million a year for Services, Training, Officers and Prosecutors, or STOP, grants. At least 20 percent of the money would have to be spent on programs that “meaningfully address sexual assault,” according to the bill.
Protections also apply to both international and domestic victims of human trafficking, and the law is designed to help ensure traffickers are brought to justice. The program also funds the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has answered more than 3 million calls since its creation and receives more than 22,000 calls every month.
It also would seek to reduce backlogs of untested evidence collected from sexual assaults, known as rape kits.
The programs in the law are subject to the automatic spending cuts, called sequestration, that took effect March 1.
The House approved the measure Feb. 28 by a vote of 286-138. The Senate passed the bill 78-22 on Feb. 12.
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