Obama signs expanded Violence Against Women Act

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President Barack Obama signed into law Thursday an update to the Violence Against Women Act.

The president was surrounded by domestic violence survivors, law officers and tribal leaders during the ceremony at the interior department.

The law extends support to the LGBT community, native Americans, immigrants and college students. It also provides training for judges and law officers.

"Because this is a country where everybody should be able to pursue their own measure of happiness and live their lives free from fear, no matter who you are no matter who you love that's got to be our priority and that's what today's about," said Obama.

The original bill passed in 1994, but expired in 2011. After a year of partisan debate on how to expand it, Congress finally agreed last month, and the president signed it into law Thursday.

House Republicans opposed the expansions when the Senate included them in a bill last year. But after performing poorly among women voters in the fall election, GOP leaders capitulated in February and allowed a vote on a similar version. It passed even though most Republicans voted against it.

In his remarks, the president said all women have the right to live free of fear, and that is what today is all about. The loudest applause came when President Obama talked about how the law protects native American women on tribal lands. The crowd also roared for Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator, wrote and sponsored the original bill.

Indian women suffer incidents of domestic violence at rates more than double the national averages.

"Indian country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in America. and one of the reasons is when native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not native American, the attacker is immune from prosecution by tribal courts. Well, as soon as I sign this bill, that ends," the president said.

The Justice Department says the rate of sexual violence against women and girls age 12 or older fell 64 percent in a decade and has remained stable for five years.

"With all the law's success there's still too many women in this country who live in fear of violence, who are still prisoner in their own home, too many victims who we have to mourn," said Biden.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics survey concludes that in 2010, women and girls nationwide experienced about 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults, compared with 556,000 in 1995. Rates declined from a peak of 5 per 1,000 females in 1995 to 1.8 per 1,000 females in 2005. The figure remained unchanged from 2005 to 2010.

"We've made incredible progress since 1994 but we can not let up, not when domestic violence still kills three women a day. not when one in five women will be a victim of rape in their lifetime. Not when one in three women is abused by a partner. So I promise you, not just as your president, but as a son and a husband and a father, I'm going to keep at this. I know Vice President Biden is going to keep at it. My administration is going to keep at it for as long as it takes," said Obama.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, has been working for decades to curb violence against women. She says the new study is proof that the newly reauthorized Violence Against Act and awareness of the problem by police is having a positive impact.

The new law gives Indian courts the ability to prosecute non-Indians for a set of crimes limited to domestic violence and violations of protecting orders. Tribal officials say its implementation will be slow as tribes amend their legal codes and ensure defendants receive the same rights offered in state and federal courts.