U.N. Survivor Town Hall puts an international spotlight on sexual violence
As a survivor of sexual violence, when you hear that there are at least 1.3 billion other people in the world just like you, it’s hard to believe. The experience was intensely personal, an intimate violation — one that left you feeling isolation, shame, maybe even guilt. And yet, according to the World Health Organization, 1.3 billion people have lived through something similar.
That statistic was repeated numerous times Thursday night on the 31st floor of the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan. Inside the offices of the Delegation of the European Union, at least 100 people gathered in order to support the passage of the United Nations’ first-ever resolution specifically for survivors of sexual violence, called the Survivors’ Bill of Rights. The event was hosted by Rise, an organization founded by 28-year-old activist Amanda Nguyen.
Nguyen opened the affair, dubbed the U.N. Survivor Town Hall, with a video detailing the aftermath of her own assault: a six-hour examination for the rape kit, hours and weeks of questioning, years of fighting so that all of the evidence gathered wouldn’t be destroyed. Nguyen was attacked in Massachusets, and before her legal battle that would later change the law, evidence gathered from rape kits was only stored by the state for six months — imposing a huge legal hurdle for survivors seeking justice, given how only 4.6 percent of reported rapes even result in an arrest.
That fight eventually inspired Nguyen to found Rise, which is dedicated to addressing civil rights issues for survivors of sexual violence. And a few years later, it allowed a roomful of survivors to gather alongside international delegates while their cause was discussed by the largest and most powerful intergovernmental organization in the world.
“I wanted every survivor who spoke to feel like the world is listening, that the world cares about them, that the world cares about their assault, about their story. And I think that was achieved. Solidarity was felt in that room,” Nguyen told Mic. “And we got world leaders to see that too.”
What Rise and the survivors accompanying them are asking for from the U.N. might appear a bit obvious to an outside observer: the right to equality under the law, the right to survivors’ advocacy, the right to terminate all legal ties with the assailant, the right to continue education and schooling following sexual violence, the right to report sexual violence and obtain forensic medical evidence without cost to the survivor, the right to informative rape kit procedures and notification, and the right to the retention of all rights regardless of whether assault is reported to law enforcement.
They’re also asking for the U.N. secretary-general to compile a report on sexual assault survivors’ rights. The resolution will be voted on next year. If it passes, those tenets would be established as international standards.
As over a dozen speakers who took the stage Thursday will say, those are the rights so commonly denied in the aftermath of an assault. Access to a victim’s advocate, being believed by law enforcement, even the right to getting a rape kit — all are often not provided to victims of sexual violence across the globe.
“It doesn’t take much to recognize the epidemic that is sexual violence around the world,” said actress and activist Amber Heard, one of nearly 20 speakers who took to the stage to speak about their experience with sexual violence. “Unfortunately, the doubt and silence that often follows an assault can be far worse. What I survived is not the worst thing that happened to me. It was what happened after I decided to come forward. And I have witnessed that as a high-profile, relatively privileged white woman in the entertainment industry.”
Several survivors of sexual violence who took the stage attested that what happened after they were abused was nearly as traumatic as the violence itself. Near the end of the night, a dozen of the women who survived abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the disgraced physician who worked with gymnasts from Michigan State University as well as Team USA, addressed the crowd. The youngest person on stage was a 12-year-old girl — the oldest, nearly 40.
One woman, 38-year-old Larissa Boyce, recalled how she reported Nassar’s abuse to a confidante in 1997. She was coerced out of filing an official report. After that, Nassar continued to violate her.
“I told a trusted adult back in 1997 about his abuse — when some of my sister survivors were not even born yet,” Boyce said. “Let that sink in.” Nassar was given a virtual life sentence in February 2018, after dozens of women testified to his abuse.
Boyce went on to share that she suffered a trauma-related, stress-induced coma this summer, eliciting an audible gasp from an audience member. One member of the U.K. delegation — one of several representatives from the British and Argentine governments who were in attendance — wiped tears from his eyes. The stories being told Thursday were largely for the edification of the government officials, whose support Rise needs to pass the Survivor’s Bill of Rights. The personal tales add something visceral to the statistics, which should be damning enough: 1 in 3 women and girls will experience sexual violence, as well as 1 in 6 men and boys.
“We’re making it real by putting a face to it,” survivor Jessica Long told Mic. One of the women who spoke at Thursday’s event, Long is a managing director at the firm Accenture, working under their Strategy and Sustainability umbrella to help companies establish more environmentally sound practices. She put Thursday’s event in relatable terms.
“It’s like climate change,” she said. “When a particular issue feels too big, people are like, ‘Well, what can I actually do about it?’ And that’s why this particular resolution is so important. It’s about saying, ‘Hey, this is a really big problem.’ Because I think people nod their heads to that. It’s about saying, ‘This is a really big problem, and here are the very specific things we can do to address it.’”
The advocates Rise brought to the U.N. varied widely: a young man from Colombia; women from Nigeria, Australia, and the United States; a middle-aged Jewish man who didn’t come to terms with his abuse until he was 48 years old; the 12-year-old girl who survived Nassar’s abuse and was barely tall enough to reach the podium. There is no one type of sexual abuse survivor — you can be famous, an artist, a doctor, a student, anyone.
As moving as Rise’s approach was, it’s also smart strategy. To ignore a person who tells you, “I am one of more than a billion. Like the others, I have endured so much pain that I cannot live my life as it was before, and still I suffer because of your inaction” — it seems impossible.
Politicians, of course, are known for their ability to maintain apathy, but Rise has seen success in the past; in 2016, the organization shepherded the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act through Congress en route to unanimous passage. The organization still has years of work ahead when it comes to passing a universal, worldwide Survivor’s Bill of Rights, but their week of advocacy at the U.N. is a bold and promising start.
“You’re way more powerful than you know,” Nguyen says. “Just remember that these people in these hallowed institutions — either Congress or the United Nations — they’re actually there to serve you.”
“It is your right to speak up, and you’re not alone.”