Update: On Friday, President Obama signed the Survivors Bill of Rights Act into law.
An unprecedented bill of rights for sexual assault survivors was passed by Congress on Wednesday night and is now on its way to President Obama's desk.
The bill is designed to support survivors of sexual assault and provide greater transparency around how reports of sexual assault are dealt with by law enforcement. Its protections could encourage more survivors to come forward and seek justice.
The obstacles facing survivors of sexual assault can be daunting: from a lack of support while reporting a crime to the fraught process of making sure rape kits are actually used to bring perpetrators to account. According to advocacy group End The Backlog, hundreds of thousands of rape kits in crime labs and police departments nationally remain untested. The Survivors Bill of Rights Act requires better protections for survivors across the country.
Specifically, the legislation means that survivors will have access to sexual assault counselors and more information about their rights. Importantly, they'll also be able to track when and where their rape kit is tested by law enforcement, if they choose to submit one. That's been an ongoing issue nationwide, with thousands of untested rape kits still waiting to be sent to labs around the country.
“This is an incredible step forward for survivors of sexual assault, who too often find a justice system that’s working against them, not for them, and I look forward to President Obama signing these basic rights into law,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH), the author and co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate, in a statement.
The bill was partly drafted by 24-year-old Amanda Nguyen, who set up an advocacy organization, Rise, after grappling with the legal system in the wake of her own rape. Nguyen is a White House deputy liaison at the State Department.
Part of the challenge for survivors is that state laws vary widely: in Massachusetts for example, where Nguyen had her rape kit tested, the statute of limitations on filing a sexual assault charge is 15 years. But rape kit are destroyed after six months unless a survivor files a request to have it preserved. That's something Nguyen and many other women are expected to do every six months to keep their kits in storage.
“The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen told the Guardian in February.
The bill passed this week will require states to keep rape kits at least until the statute of limitations on filing a complaint is up. And it means that survivors will have to be notified when their kits are tested and results are available, and of any plans to destroy the kits. The rights set out in the bill are enforceable in federal court.
"Sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes and I sincerely hope that these basic rights make it easier for survivors to come forward and pursue justice," said Shaheen.
The Senate passed the bill in May. If it's signed into law by President Obama (which is likely) and implemented by states, it could create more accountability in how rape kits are handled and ease some of the burden on people reporting that they've been raped.