Definitions of Public Policy and the Law

Contributed by

Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Medical University of South Carolina


In any society, governmental entities enact laws, make policies, and allocate resources. This is true at all levels. Public policy can be generally defined as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.


Individuals and groups often attempt to shape public policy through education, advocacy, or mobilization of interest groups. Shaping public policy is obviously different in Western-style democracies than in other forms of government. But it is reasonable to assume that the process always involves efforts by competing interest groups to influence policy makers in their favor.

A major aspect of public policy is law. In a general sense, the law includes specific legislation and more broadly defined provisions of constitutional or international law. There are many ways that the law can influence how survivors of violence against women are treated and the types of services they receive. Likewise, legislation identifies areas in which research grants can be funded and often determines the amount of funding allocated. Thus, it is not surprising that public policy debates occur over proposed legislation and funding.

In this context, advocacy can be defined as attempting to influence public policy through education, lobbying, or political pressure. Advocacy groups often attempt to educate the general public as well as public policy makers about the nature of problems, what legislation is needed to address problems, and the funding required to provide services or conduct research. Although advocacy is viewed as unseemly by some in the professional and research community, it is clear that public policy priorities are influenced by advocacy. Sound research data can be used to educate the public as well as policy makers, thereby improving the public policy process.

How the Law Influences Treatment of Violence Against Women Survivors

There are at least six ways the law directly or indirectly influences the lives of victims of violence against women:
    State, national, and international law provides a framework for identifying basic human rights and for defining violations of these rights.
    The law defines behaviors proscribed by criminal and civil statutes and provides criminal and civil penalties for violations.
    The law establishes eligibility criteria for legal immigration, asylum, and citizenship - all of which are relevant for many victims who leave their native lands and seek refugee status in another nation.
    The law establishes eligibility criteria for a host of services including veteran benefits, crime victim compensation, and welfare.
    The law has a major impact on the level of funding for mental health and other services provided to victims. Public policy makers allocate funding for services through the appropriations process and by enacting laws that establish special service programs for trauma victims. For example, the Victim of Crime Act of 1984 established funding for crime victim services and compensation.
    Laws and the governmental appropriations process control and provide funding for research.
This section contains public policy information relevant to researchers and advocates working with victims and survivors. In it, we provide information about important legislation, federal agencies that address VAW issues, national VAW advocacy groups, pending VAW legislation, where to find out about legislation in your state, and public policy research summaries.
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