Meet The Brave Senator Leading The Fight For Sexual Assault Survivors’ RightsNovember 28, 2016
By: Alexandra Svokos
Amanda Nguyen was going from office to office in Congress, trying to find a lawmaker who would support her cause. Nguyen was raped about two years ago, when she was 22, and had a rape kit examination immediately after in a Massachusetts hospital. Under state rules on the statute of limitations, she had 15 years to decide if she wanted to file charges against her attacker. But also under state rules, the rape kit would be destroyed in six months. So every six months, she has to ask that the kit does not get destroyed. This is, obviously, a major barrier for a woman seeking justice for a horrendous attack. Nguyen wanted to change that.
Eventually, her story got to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. Shaheen told Elite Daily, When we heard what had happened to her, we absolutely agreed it’s an outrage and we need to do everything we can to try and make sure that doesn’t happen again to any other victim of sexual assault in this country. After meeting Nguyen, Shaheen, along with Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, created the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act.
The act creates a set of national rules for how sexual assault survivors must be treated. This includes keeping rape kits preserved until the statute of limitations runs out and giving survivors information on the status of rape kits. The act also creates a group of experts from medical and legal groups selected by the attorney general and secretary of health and human services. This group will come up with a set of standards and advise the medical and law enforcement communities on the standards. Notably, the act provides counseling and legal information to survivors. The Senate passed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act in May and the House passed it in September. President Barack Obama signed it into law in October.
This law could change how survivors are treated by officials who are supposed to help them out. It could stop victim-blaming from police officers and medical professionals and, in doing so, change how cases are handled. It could lead to more care and prosecution in sexual assault cases. Shaheen hopes this will be the effect:
“There’s a reason why sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. It’s because those people who have been victims of sexual assault often find a criminal justice system that is not as welcoming to trying to find justice as it should be."
Shaheen has had political experience with issues like sexual assault that predominately affect women for a long time. In the ’80s, she served on the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women, where she worked on supporting domestic violence shelters and victims of sexual assault. Shaheen also worked on campus sexual assault as a state senator.
"I absolutely understood what Amanda was saying when she talked about her challenges and the fact that not only was she a survivor of sexual assault — where she had to face that ordeal — but then she had to face how to make sure that she could do everything possible to try and bring the perpetrator to trial and get justice."
Nguyen had to have a lot of strength and persistence to make this act a reality. She had to physically seek legislators who would both understand the specific issues of sexual assault and be motivated enough to actually do something about it. Shaheen called Nguyen a “great role model for activism” because of her drive.
Nguyen first worked on the state level, then learned about the federal level and went to Congress to make changes there. She organized online and got tens of thousands of signatures of support on a petition. It was these factors that made the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act happen. From her work as Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Shaheen knows that young people are politically driven. We care about things like community service and “service that makes a difference.”
Where we hit blocks, she said, is transferring that care to political action. Shaheen said, "There’s a tremendous opportunity out there for young people. We just need to help make the connection from what can be done through service to the importance of political activities in changing the things people are concerned about."
Nguyen knew that connection and used it to make this major change that will help many others like her. Shaheen believes the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act will address the issues specific to sexual assault, including trauma, victim-blaming and a lack of trust in institutions.
She said, "This is about a personal crime against your physical self, your emotional self. That’s what I think is different about this crime and why we’ve got to understand that it has to be treated in a way that addresses the particular aspects of the crime."
This act shows that change is possible with the combined help of courageous, driven citizens and elected officials who listen and care. Shaheen didn’t stop with the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. In July, she introduced the Fair Housing for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survivors Act of 2016, which would prevent survivors from being evicted from housing because of an assault, which is a very real and serious problem.
By: Alexandra Svokos
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