Rape - why is it still so hard to believe victims

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made national headlines by meeting with students who claim they have been falsely accused of sexual assault.

Explaining her reasoning at a press conference, DeVos told journalists that she wanted to hear “everyone’s story” regarding the widespread problem of rape on American university campuses.

DeVos’s meeting with accused rapists that have links to organizations claiming rape statistics are overblown, and that post photographs and names of women survivors whose cases have not succeeded , once again illustrates the tidal wave of mistrust and hostility that survivors of sexual assault face.

This attitude was also on public display in the recent mistrial of Bill Cosby, accused by scores of women of sexual assault. Sadly, Secretary DeVos’s actions and the Cosby mistrial go beyond the unfairness of legal systems and processes, and are the blatant manifestations of the ugly attitudes that we know condemn victims to silence. It also helps to explain why so many don’t come forward.

Sexual violence is largely a hidden epidemic and a daily occurrence in every country across the world, so commonplace that it barely gets remarked upon unless an extreme incident captures the public’s attention.

The World Health Organization estimates that globally around 120 million girls under 20 have been raped. For every reported crime, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative suggests there are approximately 19 more which go unreported .

Here in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that in comparison to other serious crimes, a higher percentage of rape and sexual assault victimizations are not reported. In fact, it is estimated that the police were not informed about around 211,200 rapes and sexual assaults every year between 2006 and 2010.

Research also tells us that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college in the US, with some reports putting the figure even higher at over one in four . These numbers demonstrate what we already know: that impunity for crimes of sexual violence is pervasive.

Starting with the “shame” that deters victims from reporting, our legal systems continue to re-victimize victims through often dismissive, disbelieving and insensitive behavior of police, prosecutors and judges. Legal procedures are cumbersome and demeaning, while legal proceedings are lengthy. Equality Now , which is an international women’s rights organization that focuses on legal advocacy, has documented these and many others barriers to justice in a recent report The Global Rape Epidemic: The World’s Shame .

Governments around the world have made repeated commitments to ending violence against girls and women, but there has been little political will to make change in processes that impede victims from coming forward. This is especially true when it involves systems of power.

In the United States, the campus and military justice systems have both come under fire for not addressing sexual violence. These systems are ill-equipped and have an inherent conflict of interest leading to impunity for perpetrators. If Secretary DeVos’ intent is truly to help survivors and examine this system, we commend her.

Experiencing a sexual attack can be particularly harrowing for young victims. Equality Now has taken on cases of sexual violence against girls in order to shine a spotlight on gaps in legal systems that prevent victims from getting justice and create impunity for crimes. These types of legal cases can also set important legal precedents. Through these cases we have seen how difficult it can be to get a conviction and appropriate sentencing, and therefore how easy it is that rapes continue with impunity.

To make lasting change, governments must have political will to enact and enforce strong laws to protect women from sexual violence. They must hold accountable those government officials who fail to implement the law or traumatize victims. They should review legal procedures to ensure that victims of sexual violence are not re-victimized through legal proceedings and ensure adequate punishment for perpetrators, so that others are deterred.

There is no easy fix to changing attitudes around the world, but effective legal systems are a necessary place to start. We call upon Secretary DeVos to look at the true root of the problem of sexual assault on campus by providing an enabling environment for sexual violence survivors and committing to a full and fair process for them. Doing so can help change the dynamics for survivors and ensure that justice truly takes place.

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). For details of our current campaigns, please visit www.equalitynow.org and find us on Twitter @equalitynow.

About the author:

Christa Stewart is the manager for Equality Now’s End Sexual Violence and Justice for Girls programs. She is also a lawyer with considerable experienced in working with adolescent girls, and on issues of human trafficking, sexual assault and immigration.

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