Every six months, the routine was the same for 21-year-old Harvard student Amanda Nguyen. She would walk through the doors of her local rape crisis center in Massachusetts and plead to administrators: Do not destroy my rape kit.
With the massive backlog of rape kits in the U.S., it was nearly impossible in some states to ensure that a kit was tested, let alone even track down its location. New York City alone reportedly has an estimated 17,000 untested rape kits. Under Massachusetts law, Nguyen had to locate her own rape kit and file an extension to preserve the evidence in the hopes that, one day, it would be tested and her case would be brought to justice. If she didn't take matters in her own hands, there was a chance her kit would be lost or worse—destroyed.
That process and the inevitable ramification of replaying her assault had to be repeated. Every. Six. Months.
Each time she walked through the doors of her rape crisis center, the waiting room was filled. "I remember thinking, 'Wow if this is what I'm going through and I have a Harvard law professor as my attorney—one of the best in the nation—then what is everyone else that doesn't have my privilege going through?'" she recalled. "It was very clear to me that I had a choice: I could accept injustice or I could rewrite the law."
Nguyen chose the latter. She drafted the first-ever standardized bill of rights for sexual assault survivors, which was signed into law in 2016 and led to an overhaul in the way the U.S. handles rape kits.
"We're penning our civil rights into existence," Nguyen, now 27, told MAKERS.
Nguyen's goal was to establish a standard of care and to eliminate the emotional burden for sexual assault survivors. The Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights grants each survivor the right to know where his or her rape kit is located, whether or not it has been tested, and the test results of the kit. These pieces of information are crucial to the prosecution of each rape case, as they can help trace the perpetrator or confirm a survivor's testimony.
The bill also allows for resources like sexual assault counselors and establishes fair and efficient procedures for processing rape kits.
What started as a single bill Nguyen advocated for in the state of Massachusetts became federal law, which was passed unanimously in Congress—a feat that has happened only 21 times in history. Since President Obama signed the legislation in 2016, several states have adopted the bill to ensure that justice doesn't depend on the state in which you live. With the help of Rise, a national civil rights non-profit Nguyen founded in 2014, local legislatures have passed 19 bills in the past 18 months.
And the world is taking note. Nguyen was announced as a 2018 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor that has only been awarded to 16 women in its 117-year history. If she's announced as the winner in October, she'll join the ranks of legendary women such as Mother Teresa, Malala Yousafsi, and MAKER Elizabeth Blackburn.
Nguyen also made a strong statement at the 2018 Emmy Awards which she attended with longtime supporter Westworld actress Evan Rachel Wood. The pair initially met at the 2017 Women's March, then later teamed up to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, sharing their personal experiences with rape, sexual assault and domestic violence to encourage states the federal bill.
"I think we're at a crucial time in history right now, especially for women and especially for civil rights. If I have even a little bit of power right now I want to use it for good, " Wood said on the red carpet of the 2018 Emmys about her activism with Rise. "However, if you can't hear the whole truth you will never know true empathy, and I believe in the saying 'If we have to live through it then you should have to hear it.'"
If you missed the @HouseJudiciary hearing today, you can see our full testimonies here: https://t.co/Ot9TvwujN2.
Thank you, @evanrachelwood, @nguyen_amanda#LaurenLibby and @RAINN for bravely sharing your voices and stories. Photo courtesy of @PhotoRalphpic.twitter.com/lr8w78fJfy
— Rise (@RiseNowUS) February 27, 2018
At a moment when women have declared Time's Up, when young girls have united to bring justice to predators in sports, and when millions declared #MeToo, the recognition of Nguyen's work on behalf of women—and men—who have survived sexual assault is another win for the movement.
It's a sign that the world is waking up and recognizing that violence against women is a violation against humanity. Or as MAKER Hillary Clinton famously declared at the 1995 United Nations World Conference in Beijing: "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." To this day, the UN has never formally recognized sexual violence against women as an individual crime. Nguyen hopes to change that this week with an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly which begins September 18.
In her letter to the UN, Nguyen writes:
Sexual violence is a universal issue that demands international recognition. In fact, 1.3 billion people are sexual assault survivors. The United Nations (UN) was founded to protect the equality of all people, regardless of who they are or where they live. Yet, the UN General Assembly has never passed a resolution focused solely on sexual violence.
At Rise, we believe justice should not depend on geography. Basic protections against sexual violence and access to justice should be available to everyone, no matter their gender, age, nationality or citizenship. Around the world, protesters are marching to demand recognition and justice for survivors who are denied basic rights and access to justice. Countries are actively reforming sexual violence legislation to improve survivors' access to justice. This represents a growing global consensus that survivors of sexual violence deserve certain basic rights. For the first time in history, an UNGA Sexual Violence Survivors' Rights Resolution would enshrine that survivors' rights are fundamental human rights:
With the passage of this United Nations resolution, we will bear witness to all survivors in their pursuit of justice, guaranteeing basic civil rights protections and absolving them of any custom, tradition or religious consideration that may delay or diminish this pursuit.
Above all, Nguyen is centering her fight on the marginalized communities that suffer from sexual violence and ensuring that their voices are heard too.
"The most important and most powerful tool we have is our voices. Everyone can use theirs to fight for what they believe in," says Nguyen. "No one is powerless when we come together and no one is invisible when we demand to be seen."
For more information on how you can support survivors in your corner of the world, click here.