The issue of rape and sexual assault has never been more pressing and more discussed than the past few years. With increasing research about the college campus rape epidemic in the US, documentaries like ‘The Hunting Ground’ and ‘Invisible War’ showing just how grossly under-reported and misunderstood this issue is, and high profile cases including that of Bill Cosby who has been accused of the aforementioned crimes by numerous women, as well as police office Daniel Holtzclaw who was sentenced to 263 years for raping and sexually abusing at least 13 black women, we cannot ignore the gaping holes in society and our justice system.
And let’s not forget, sexual assault and rape are crimes, punishable by law, but places where the system breaks down (including the statute of limitations, for instance) need a massive overhaul if we are ever going to be a country that adequately tackles this issue in the right way.
One young woman’s brave, persistent efforts could potentially change a crucial element in the ongoing fight to bring better justice and clarity to the way rape and sexual assault is handled by law enforcement and the courts. Amanda Nguyen, 24, is a White House liaison for the State Department and the founder of the non-profit organization Rise, a nonprofit devoted to drafting more comprehensive legislation for the rights of sexual-assault survivors.
Together with the help of a few US Senators, Amanda has helped pioneer and draft a law that could allow victims and survivors to hold more power over the outcome of their case than they do now. The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which was recently presented in the Senate by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and also championed by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla, came about after Amanda suffered from an attack herself.
Two years ago, Amanda was raped and completed a rape kit in the state of Massachusetts. The state’s law outlines 15 years for a victim to pursue legal action. But while she was at the hospital, Amanda was given a pamphlet with a bit more detail info which stated she had to file an extension request to keep the rape kit intact, otherwise the the state would destroy it in six months. To make things even more confusing, there was no info given to Amanda as to how to even file this extension.
Amanda has had to file the extension multiple times and each time, it is still confusing because the rape kit is in different hands. During one of the requests, she was told the kit was most likely still in police custody, but then she found out the kit was actually at a lab. This lab would not confirm via email that it even had the kit, and Amanda was forced to fly to Massachusetts to retrieve a printed out physical letter. Geez!
“The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” she told the Guardian.
Throughout this constant ordeal, it made Amanda wonder whether this was the system that a rape victim would have to endure in other states, so she set about finding out. Among 20 laws she came across, the results varied by state.
“Kansas and Utah give minimal rights to people who have been sexually assaulted. Utah’s government will pay to rest a rape kit, and Kansas won’t force victims to take polygraph tests. California and the District of Columbia have strong laws surrounding access to sexual assault counselors, but neither gives victims the right to a copy of their police report. California is the only state in the country to guarantee access to the results of a rape kit, which can include whether the person was drugged.
Amanda also found there is no state that is required to keep a rape kit until the statute of limitations expire. When you add this to the fact that a study as recent as 2015 shows at least 70,000 rape kits at police departments across the country have gone untested, it’s clear this is not just some arbitrary detail in fixing a broken system.
Because of her own experience ensuring her rape kit wasn’t destroyed and research regarding state laws, Amanda sprung into action and began looking into drafting a law that would create new rights for people who had been raped or sexually assaulted. The law would implement a tracking system for rape kits and ensure law enforcement contact a victim 60 days before destroying it. It would also guarantee results of forensic examinations, copies of police reports, and more extensive counseling resources for survivors.
“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,” Amanda told TakePart in a separate interview.
At first the law was introduced in Massachusetts, and now Amanda, together with Rise, are helping lawmakers in California and New York draft similar bills.
Some say this law has the potential to restore faith in the justice system for assault victims.
“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,” said Rebecca O’Connor, vice president of public policy for RAINN, which worked closely with Rise on the legislation.
“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 added.
In an interview with Elle Magazine, Amanda explained that for the most part, sexual assault and rape is a state crime. But the long term hope is that if this gets introduced at a federal level, it will enable states to draft similar legislation.
“When the Crime Victims’ Rights Act was passed in 2004, there was a catalyst for action at the state level. Quickly, after CVRA was passed, states adopted it. And today, all 50 states have crime victim protections in place. This is the model that we’re trying to build off of. We’re creating a set of rights at the federal level for all states to consider and hopefully adopt in some form in the near future,” she said.
Although it sounds very optimistic, Amanda does admit it was hard getting politicians to care because many of them have a number of things they are balancing at one point. But she also points out how important it is for constituents to contact their lawmakers as you never know what might happen.
“Within two months, we researched and drafted and introduced our legislation in the Massachusetts State House. Within four months, other states asked us for the bill because there was so much interest and momentum for it. And within five months, we found ourselves in the halls of the United States Congress. This is truly an example of grassroots democracy,” she said.
The power of taking a painful situation that often goes unreported, and where many victims are forced into silence simply because of the lack of action on the behalf of law enforcement, is a testament to Amanda’s persistent. The Sexual Assault Survivors Rights Act could be the catalyst in giving thousands of victims around the country a chance at getting the justice they deserve.
“Too many survivors feel like the entire system has failed them. We need a basic set of rights for people who are sexually assaulted,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
“The fact that she’s been able to build so much support, that we’ve got a bill that’s being introduced, that we’ve got a real shot at getting through, speaks to her incredible abilities,” she told the Guardian about Amanda’s work getting this bill drafted.
In a bid to raise more awareness about the need to introduce laws like this in every state, as well as educate everyone on a broken system than many may not realize exists until they have to go through it themselves, Amanda worked with comedy website Funny Or Die to create a sketch about the problem. The ‘Even Supervillains Think Our Sexual Assault Laws Are Insane’ which hopefully mobilize people to action. Watch below: