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What Are Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights? This Group Is Making Sure Survivors Are Covered

It looks like 2018 won't be all bad, if Amanda Nguyen has anything to say about it. The year is only one-twelfth done, and already, RISE, the nonprofit she founded, has reached an impressive milestone. Since Jan. 1, the group has gotten sexual assault survivor bills of rights introduced into nine states in the country: Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Washington, and New York.

"It's not only the right thing to do, it's the politically smart thing to do," Nguyen say in an interview for Elite Daily. "This issue cuts across party lines. Everyone can agree that, OK, this is bad, and the system is broken for survivors."

Nguyen was assaulted while a student at Harvard University in 2013. When she didn't immediately pursue a case, the state of Massachusetts threatened to destroy her rape kit. It turns out, her story wasn't all that unique, and the rape kit loophole was only one of several ways in which survivors like her would have a hard time getting justice. As a result, Nguyen founded RISE in 2014 to help create legislation to protect survivors, which gave way to the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights.

In October 2016, after Nguyen had worked with Congress, the federal Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights passed unanimously, one of only a handful of bills in modern U.S. history to do so. The bill set the country on a path towards making sure that survivors like her had adequate protections under the law.

But because many assault cases are handled on a state level, federal law doesn't always get the last word. In light of that, RISE has been on a mission to get the same bill of rights model passed in each statehouse to ensure that the legal coverage is equal no matter where or at what level an assault case is tried. One of the most comprehensive bills to date was passed in October 2017, thanks to RISE's collaboration with California legislators.

Nguyen, RISE's CEO, oversees all the state-level work done by the group's local organizers, or "Risers." The Risers who've been working to get the bills introduced into these nine statehouses, Nguyen says, are also survivors themselves. And it's this message of empowerment that she hopes to leave more survivors with.

"I want people to understand that they have the power to change the communities around them, that it doesn't matter what background they come from," she says. "I want people to feel like they're not powerless."

Like the federal bill, these state-level bills include provisions designed to ensure that survivors are protected and have a fair shot at justice. For one, not all states have the same requirement as to how long hospitals must retain patients' DNA tests (or "rape kits"). So if a person seeks medical care after an assault and gets a test done, they may later pursue a case only to discover that the hospital has thrown away their only piece of evidence, and legally so. The state of New York, for example, currently requires public hospitals to keep kits for just 30 days; over 800 kits had been destroyed in the state between 2012 and 2017, reports Broadly.com.

Other provisions in the bills of rights concern the statutes of limitations that determine how long a survivor has to pursue a case after the attack. The federal statute of limitations is 20 years, but in some states, that bar is much lower. In addition, California's bill of rights, for example, ensured that survivors would have access to a free shower after receiving an examination at a medical facility, and the right to access their medical record, receive a copy of their police report, and know the rights and resources available to them.

The quest to get bills of rights passed has been going at a breakneck pace, and the bills themselves, unlike most legislation, have been unchallenged. Nguyen says that the concept has solid support. Partisan gridlock, interestingly, isn't the barrier.

"To be honest, the biggest challenge we always face is ignorance," Nguyen says. "As soon as someone hears about the injustices that survivors have experienced within their own communities, they realize that it's something that has to change."

RISE has already helped pass bills of rights in nine states, so if all nine of these newly introduced bills also pass, they will have 32 states to go. There's no denying Nguyen's ambition. In the next couple of years, she's hoping to have all 50 states' bills of rights on the books. And if the next two years look anything like this month, it might even be sooner than that.