Dear Nicholas Kristof: The US Justice System Also Fails Survivors

Dear Nicholas Kristof: The US Justice System Also Fails Survivors of Sexual Assault
Dear Nicholas Kristof: The US Justice System Also Fails Survivors

*Trigger Warning*

“I thought my rape was the most traumatic experience of my life, but I was wrong. What was more traumatic was the way I was treated by the police.”

So began several hours of powerful testimony by survivors of sexual assault in Washington, DC, at a hearing of the DC City Council last month. The Council is considering a bill that would increase public oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in the wake of a report by Human Rights Watch that described, in agonizing detail, the many ways that sexual assault survivors have been retraumatized by police officers.

Mr. Kristof, I was there that day. I heard the words of the survivors who chose to share their stories and the pain in their voices. That’s why reading your most recent op-ed in the New York Times felt like a punch to the gut.

Not only is it dangerous and wrong to congratulate our justice system for reducing rape incidence as a result of greater “punishment” for perpetrators, it also cruelly ignores the experiences of sexual assault survivors in this country who are victimized by the system that you laud.

Just ask the DC woman whose 11-year-old daughter was raped twice by the same perpetrators. She reported the crime to a police officer, who ushered the child alone into an interrogation room. During hours of interrogation, she was coerced into confessing that she had lied about the rape. Weeks later, officers returned to her home to arrest her for making a false report.

I invite you to come to our nation’s capital to see just how well our justice system, in its current form, works to end sexual violence. Talk to the survivors, whose energy represents the real hope for ending the horrible crime of sexual assault. What, after all, but immense courage could cause them to engage a system that didn’t listen to them the first time?

Those of us who are organizing to address our justice system’s shortcomings — work which you erased with your focus on punishment rather than the needs of survivors — would be happy to show you around. My organization, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, has been working for over a year to increase public oversight of the way of sexual assault cases are policed in DC. We’re now joined by a wonderful group of advocates and survivors, called the DC Justice for Survivors Campaign (DC JSC), that have turned our organizing effort into something powerful.

We’ll end sexual violence not with reliance on a single blunt tool, but with an organized group of people who are empowered to do the difficult work of changing the culture, as well as engage with — or make — our systems work for us, rather than against us. On that note, you, me, and everyone else in the United States who thinks about and works to prevent sexual violence could learn a lot from Kenyan organizations like GROOTS, which trains women to organize in their communities, on their terms. We should be inspired, every day, by the women who stand up in protest against the Kenyan government to hold it accountable for failing to protect them, even at great personal risk.

Survivors of violence are speaking out. All of us must be ready to listen.

Zosia Sztykowski is CASS’s Director of Community Outreach.

The DC Justice for Survivors Campaign (DC JSC) is a grassroots coalition of sexual assault survivors, direct service providers, advocacy organizations, allies and community members working to increase the rights of and improve services for survivors of sexual assault in the District of Columbia. Formed by Collective Action for Safe Spaces, (CASS), the DC Rape Crisis Center and DC NOW, the DC JSC believes that sexual assault survivors must receive fair and compassionate treatment from first responders, service providers and members of law enforcement and the justice system. We believe there should be greater transparency by agencies and organizations that work with survivors of sexual assault to reduce re-victimization.