A common approach to estimating the conditional volatility of short horizon asset returns is to use an exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) of squared past returns. The EWMA estimator is based on the maximum likelihood estimator of the variance of the normal distribution, and is thus optimal when returns are conditionally normal. However, there is ample evidence that the conditional distribution of short horizon financial asset returns is leptokurtic, and so the EWMA estimator will generally be inefficient in the sense that it will attach too much weight to extreme returns. In this paper, we propose an alternative EWMA estimator that is robust to leptokurtosis in the conditional distribution of portfolio returns. The estimator is based on the maximum likelihood estimator of the standard deviation of the Laplace distribution, and is a function of an exponentially weighted moving average of the absolute value of past returns, rather than their squares. We employ the robust EWMA estimator to forecast the VaR of aggregate equity portfolios for the US, the UK and Japan using historical simulation. We find that the robust EWMA estimator offers an improvement over the standard EWMA estimator. In particular, the VaR forecasts that it generates are as accurate as those generated by the standard EWMA estimator, but are more efficient in the sense that the average level of capital required to cover against unexpected losses is lower and the root mean square deviation between the VaR forecast and actual returns is smaller. Moreover, the volatility of the VaR forecast itself is substantially lower with the robust EWMA estimator than with the standard EWMA estimator, reflecting its lower sensitivity to extreme returns.