Do We Need a Bill of Rights for Sexual-Assault Survivors?

A State Department employee drafted the bill after experiencing America’s burdensome legal system firsthand.

Amanda Nguyen. (Photo: Ryan Lash/TED Conference/Flickr)

Feb 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Reed is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at the University of Southern California.

Two years ago, 24-year-old Amanda Nguyen underwent a difficult process too many people have had to complete: She had a rape-kit examination in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

These kits, which gather DNA and document injuries, can provide crucial evidence if a victim chooses to press charges. What Nguyen didn’t expect was having to revisit the painful aftermath of her alleged sexual assault every six months under a state law that allows rape kits to be destroyed unless the victim requests an extension.

She’s not alone. Though laws surrounding sexual assault vary, there is no state in which rape kits are preserved for the duration of the state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault.

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“I realized that I could either accept this injustice or try to rewrite the law, and one of these options was a lot better than the other,” Nguyen said in an interview with TakePart.

Her day job is deputy White House liaison for the State Department, and in her spare time she heads up Rise, a nonprofit devoted to drafting more comprehensive legislation for the rights of sexual-assault survivors.

Since the founding of Rise in November 2014, Nguyen and a team of advocates and policy experts have drafted legislation introduced before the House of Representatives last year, where it languished in committee.

Earlier this week, a version of the bill was presented anew, this time in the Senate by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. The bill is meant to address the biggest challenges faced by survivors of sexual assault: chiefly, providing nationwide rights to rape kits, making them free of charge to the victim, and ensuring better preservation and notification of the results.

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While survivors and allies have been speaking up about sexual assault for years, Nguyen said the legislation her team put together is more comprehensive than anything that’s come before. “Rise has simplified what it is that is broken and provided a very clear first-step solution to how people can get involved and take action,” she explained.

If the bill becomes law, it would ensure the right of sexual-assault survivors to have their rape kit preserved for the duration of their state’s statute of limitations—or longer, if requested—and to be notified 60 days prior to the disposal of a rape kit. It would also guarantee results of forensic examinations, copies of police reports, and more extensive counseling resources for survivors.

Perhaps most important, the legislation has the potential to restore survivors’ trust in the legal system.

Rebecca O’Connor, vice president of public policy for RAINN, which worked closely with Rise on the legislation, told TakePart the main reason sexual assault is such an underreported crime is because people are intimidated by the legal system.

“More and more we hear stories, like the one that gave rise to this legislation, where evidence isn’t available when a survivor finally comes to a place in the healing process and their own personal journey where they’re ready to engage with the system,” O’Connor said.

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Particularly where forensic examinations are concerned, “we want to ensure that their bravery in coming forward and submitting their body as a crime scene for, quite frankly, a not pleasant, hours-long exam isn’t for naught,” she said.

The legislation’s journey has not been easy. The grassroots approach involved knocking on a lot of doors in Washington, D.C., many of which did not have an ally on the other side. “More times than I can count, a politician debated the political feasibility of my rights,” Nguyen recalled.

But the campaign found its champions in Shaheen as well as U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Nguyen and the Rise team will be taking the legislation to state houses around the country in the next few weeks to encourage individual states to adopt the bill. They also launched a petition urging Congress to pass the legislation and establish nationwide rights that should be seen as “common sense.” The petition already has more than 60,000 of the 75,000 requested signatures.