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OPINION

Legislature must fully protect survivors of sexual assault

A new bill would help close the gaps in the original bill and finally provide a comprehensive assault-survivor bill of rights in the state.

Amanda Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rise.Gayle Kabaker/Gayle Kabaker

Eight years ago, I was raped while studying at Harvard. The greater betrayal, however, came a year later when I discovered that the state of Massachusetts was going to destroy my rape kit. Rape kits are vital for survivors because they preserve evidence of the crime and are one of the most powerful tools to bring a perpetrator to justice. It was a fundamental betrayal, a second re-traumatization for survivors like me who believed that the system could deliver justice. Because the system failed, I set out to change the system.

A scared, recently graduated college kid, I testified before the state Legislature in 2016 in support of a bill offering a comprehensive set of rights for sexual assault survivors. Our advocacy worked. Massachusetts passed a bill that my partners at Rise, a civil rights accelerator, and I wrote to preserve evidence and provide trauma-informed standards for the criminal justice system. But at the last minute, the Legislature removed several key protections, narrowing the bill to help it pass under a legislative-mandated timeline. The original bill was a critical win for survivors across the Commonwealth but left them without key protections they deserve, like access to a rape kit and trauma counselors at no cost. Now, seven years later, the Legislature has the opportunity to finish the job and fully protect survivors of sexual assault.

My team and I recently found ourselves before the Legislature arguing for the rights of sexual assault victims. A new bill, H.1644, would help close the gaps in the original bill and finally provide a comprehensive assault survivor bill of rights in the state. This bill includes more than a dozen trauma-informed rights ensuring access to a sexual assault counselor and support person, and a rape kit at no cost, and that the authorities will promptly analyze sexual assault forensic evidence and inform the survivor of the results upon the survivor’s request. The Legislature must pass this bill immediately.

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I know personally how important these rights are to survivors. On the day that I was raped, I never could have imagined that a greater injustice awaited me than the one I had already been forced to endure. Survivors are told to go to the authorities, but when we do we are often met with backlash, faced with institutions protecting rapists, and a system that victim-shames and casts us as the pariahs rather than those who raped us. Survivors often hear those in positions of power cast rape survivors as responsible for their own trauma, either through the clothes they wear or the situations they encounter. Only when governments reject this language and begin to listen to survivors can we begin on the path toward justice.

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I also know that change is possible. Since my first testimony in the State House, I have spoken before the United Nations, which for the first time this past year advanced a resolution to protect global survivors of sexual assault. I have testified before Congress, helping to pass unanimously the full Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. Across the country, my partners at Rise have helped pass 40 other laws protecting survivors of sexual assault — and now is the time to pass the full rights in the state where this journey began.

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I am no longer the scared survivor I was seven years ago. But I still have the same fire and deep belief that these rights should be available to all rape survivors that I held when I first sat before the Legislature. Massachusetts has an opportunity not just to finish what it started. We also have an opportunity to listen to the voices of people impacted by our laws and help those who feel invisible finally be seen. Lawmakers should make good on the promise they made to survivors of sexual assault seven years ago by finally ensuring comprehensive protections for survivors like me.

Amanda Nguyen is a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the founder and CEO of Rise.