Amanda Nguyen is the CEO and founder of Rise, a nonprofit that helped get the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights signed into law. She is a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
On Wednesday, a judge sentenced Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison. Weinstein’s sentencing sends a message that it is possible for people in positions of power to be held accountable, and that the #MeToo movement has elevated survivors’ voices and achieved results.
But there is still a lot of work to be done. For every victory for survivors in the courtroom, there are countless individuals who endure a broken criminal justice system that deprives them of their rights and blocks their path to justice. Until we force our policymakers to change this system to work for, not against, survivors, convictions like Weinstein’s will be the exception, not the rule.
The inequities of our justice system are visible from the very beginning of a criminal case. In all the steps along the way, the burden falls on survivors, from reporting to rape kit collection to testifying and cross examination in the courtroom. Survivors are questioned and challenged, forced to relive and retell their trauma of sexual assault.
In no other crime would victims have to fight for evidence to be preserved, but in cases of sexual violence, women constantly have to fight with state authorities to stop their rape kit from being thrown in the trash or left untested on a shelf.
Sexual assault survivors incur many costs, from medical bills to having to move away from their perpetrators. The National Institute of Justice found that rape is the most expensive crime, with annual victim costs totaling $127 billion. Additionally, research has shown sexual abuse impedes a survivor’s ability to work. According to one study, 50 percent of sexual violence victims had to quit or were forced to leave their jobs in the year following their assaults.
These statistics are no accident — they’re a result of our court system, which is set up to maintain the status quo.
The situation is even worse for women of color and domestic workers. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, nearly half (49.5 percent) of multiracial women have been subjected to some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
Yet as the ACLU points out, black women and girls are often not believed, allowing them to be abused with impunity. Black women are also less likely to come forward, and we can see how biases in the justice system are structurally silencing entire groups of survivors.
As an Asian American woman, I know all too well how race and sexual violence intersect. Asian American women are subject to hypersexualization, which contributes to sexual violence. Yellow fever, the objectification of Asian female bodies and the stereotype that Asian women are submissive are examples of this. The exotification of our bodies dehumanizes us, and that dehumanization creates a greater chance for sexual violence.
Indeed, we’ve seen progress. After centuries of survivors being dismissed, the #MeToo movement has pushed society to take a pause when survivors come forward. From Hollywood to the Supreme Court, our voices are breaking through together and our movement is taking hold. There is power in numbers and our collective voice; we can make change.
All across the country, amazing activists like Ai-jen Poo have dedicated their lives to bringing dignity and fairness to the rights of domestic workers, passing the Domestic Worker Bills of Rights in nine states and the city of Seattle. In her powerful letter to Time’s Up, Farmworkers rights activist Mónica Ramírez galvanized a movement to give Latina women and farmworkers a voice and build solidarity. And our organization, Rise, has passed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights in 23 states and two countries — protecting 80.6 million people.
But our work is still just beginning. America still has geographic inequalities, hindering the tools available to sexual assault survivors across the country. Globally, the United Nations has never passed a resolution focused solely on the rights of sexual violence survivors.
We need to create the standard that bodily autonomy is a basic human right. We also need to recognize that for so many survivors across the world, it is difficult to come forward, report and press charges. And we need representation. I am often the only person of color — and woman of color — in the room.
Representation matters and communities of color need more representation in public office, the entertainment industry and in judges’ robes so our voices are heard.
This is just the beginning of the survivor movement, but until court systems encourage, rather than shun, survivors, we must keep fighting. We must help survivors who can’t find justice in the courtroom seek other ways forward, by sharing our stories with the world, advocating for our rights with lawmakers and pushing for changes at state houses across the country, to provide hope and a form of justice when the system fails us.