Trafficking survivor Tysheena Rhames wipes her eyes during President Obama's speech about her before he signs the Violence Against Women Act. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

President Obama on Thursday signed an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act, a measure intended to promote state and local efforts to combat rape and domestic assault and which will extend new protections to gays, lesbians and Native Americans.

First authorized in 1994, the bill provides $660 million over the next five years for programs that provide legal assistance, transitional housing, counseling and support hotlines to victims of rape and domestic abuse.

In an emotional ceremony, held at the Interior Department to accommodate a large crowd, Obama was flanked by lawmakers and survivors of sexual abuse as he said that the bill transformed the way survivors dealt with abuse, providing a support network that de-stigmatized victims.

“One of the great legacies of this law is that it didn’t just change the rules; it changed our culture. It empowered people to start speaking out. It made it okay for us, as a society, to talk about domestic abuse,” Obama said. “It made it possible for us, as a country, to address the problem in a real and meaningful way. And it made clear to victims that they were not alone — that they always had a place to go and they always had people on their side.”

Obama signed the bill as the Justice Department released a survey showing a 58-percent drop in the rate of sexual assault against women and girls over the past 15 years. In 2010, there were 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults, down from 556,000 in 1995.

Women’s advocacy groups have credited the Violence Against Women Act with the decline.

There is still more to do, Obama said. He cited statistics showing that one in five women is likely to be raped in her lifetime, and one in three is likely to be abused by a partner.

Vice President Biden, who introduced the president at the ceremony and helped craft the original bill, praised the changes, which include expanding coverage to Native American women on reservations.

“Because of the people on this stage and in this room, every time we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, we improved it,” Biden said.

The bill, whose authorization expired in 2011, became a flash point in last year’s elections as Democrats and women’s advocacy groups framed Republican opposition to the bill as part of a “war on women.”

With women backing Democrats over Republicans by double-digit margins in November, many GOP lawmakers reversed course when the bill came up again this year.

In the Senate, the bill passed 78 to 22 and in the House, the margin was 286 to 138, with 87 Republicans joining a solid Democratic bloc.

Some Republicans objected to the new domestic violence protections for gays and lesbians and the expanded authority granted to tribal courts dealing with non-Native Americans who are accused of a crime on a reservation.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) offered a separate bill that made no mention of same-sex couples and offered compromise language on the issue of tribal sovereignty. The two bills allowed a majority of Republicans to go on record as backing some version of the legislation.

Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joined Obama at the ceremony.

“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,” Obama said. “My administration is going to keep at it for as long as it takes.”

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