The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war, but was forced by the U.S. to remove language supporting rape survivors’ access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.
Though we see through historical accounts that sexual violence has long been a part of war, the U.S. threatened to use its veto to block the resolution due to the inclusion of language intended to ensure that survivors of rape have access to comprehensive medical care. Making the argument that the survivor-centered comprehensive care might include access to abortion, which is not stated in the resolution, the U.S. threatened to go on record as a country that will not stand with wartime rape survivors.
The president has been accused of both sexual assault and harassment by multiple women, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his administration would respond in this way. And yet, I am surprised.
As an advocate in the anti-sexual violence movement, a long-time trauma therapist and the CEO of a rape crisis center, what stokes a fire in my belly is that this latest development made clear that ending sexual violence against women and holding offenders accountable is not a priority for the Trump administration.
Rape as a systematic approach to instill terror and shame to destabilize communities and gain control has been widely documented over the last several decades. Conflict-related sexual violence has been documented across the globe in nations such as Bangladesh, North Korea, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri-Lanka, Uganda, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, and every nine minutes one of those people is a child. Sexual violence is a crime of epidemic proportion affecting over 321,000 Americans ages 12 and up each year. During the time it takes you to stop in at your local coffee shop, grab a latte and eat a muffin, approximately seven people will have their lives forever changed by sexual violence. This doesn’t include the ripple effects on their loved ones, their workplace and the community as a whole.
These numbers tell me that almost every single American has been directly impacted by sexual violence—if not themselves, someone they love, someone very close to them, has known this violation. Yet rape survivors will tell you that they are not as surprised when someone disbelieves or disregards their sexual assault as they are when someone offers support and understanding.
Our reigning cultural messages are that sexual violence is not that big a deal, that survivors should quickly get over it and move on, that the perpetrator’s life should not be ruined by a “he said, she said” incident. Advocates have fought against these messages to help create a world in which a survivor can disclose without fear and can rightly expect not only support and understanding, but action—and, when the stars align, justice.
Advocates have been pushing this issue to the forefront for decades. Any gain made in sexual assault victim’s rights has been due to the hard work of survivors and their allies working on the front lines to help shape the response to sexual violence within the criminal justice system, schools, faith communities, in the media and more. But changing social norms and attitudes, like victim blaming and minimizing the impact of sexual violence, takes a coordinated effort and is most effective when supported by laws and regulation.
I recognize that we cannot legislate feelings or morality, but the issue of sexual violence is a matter of public health and safety. Our country is safer when perpetrators are held accountable, and the most effective way for this to happen is for survivors to report these crimes—but every day, we hear directly from survivors that deciding to come forward was not an easy decision and often a risky one. Many of them have stories about the victimization they experienced when they decided to report to law enforcement or their school or even their family.
The message sent by those in authority matter. It shapes the cultural narrative about what is important. The work to change our responses to sexual violence—in conflict and at home—is the work that many of us have dedicated our lives to, and you can be sure that we will press on.
I wish I could say the same for our country.