September 11, 2014 6:05 AM EDT

Domestic abuse of any kind is ugly, and today there is rightful public outrage over it, whether the perpetrators are famous athletes, members of the military or leaders of our communities.

Earlier this month, I joined domestic-violence survivors and advocates at the National Archives to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and to recognize the right of every woman in America to be free from such fear.

Twenty years ago, this was a right that our culture failed to recognize. Spousal abuse was repugnant, but it was considered a “family affair.” Authorities assumed if a woman was beaten or raped by her husband or someone she knew, she must have deserved it.

That was the tragic climate when, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I introduced VAWA in 1990.

I knew people would demand change once they saw the scale of violence. To paint an honest picture, I invited health professionals to testify on the psychological effects. But what broke through were the stories of courageous survivors. As more women and men spoke out, we forged a consensus, and I added VAWA to a crime bill that had bipartisan support.

On Sept. 13, 1994, President Clinton signed the bill into law. Since then, domestic-violence rates have dropped 64%, and we’ve had fundamental reforms of state laws. And along the way we’ve changed the culture. The American people have sent a message: You’re a coward for raising a hand to a woman or child–and you’re complicit if you fail to condemn it.

Biden is the Vice President of the U.S.

This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.

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