How This Senator Is Fighting For Rights For Sexual Assault Survivors

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U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
If you doubt that you can make a real difference in today's polarized political landscape, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen wants you to meet Amanda Nguyen.

After she was sexually assaulted as a college student, Nguyen was faced with navigating a nightmare system that she's described as "worse than the rape itself."

While the state where the assault occurred provides survivors with a 15-year window to decide whether to pursue criminal charges, laws allow untested rape kits to be destroyed after six months. Nguyen discovered she would have to go through a bureaucratic maze twice a year just to have the evidence from the crime preserved.

"She got outraged about that and started coming to offices in the Senate to see who might be willing to help her," Shaheen recalled. "We were pleased that she knocked on our door, and when we heard her story, we said, 'You’re absolutely right, that’s not right, we need to do something about that.'"

Shaheen worked with Nguyen, founder of the advocacy group Rise, to introduce the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. The legislation aims to establish basic standards for how we should treat survivors of assault, including guidelines on how to maintain evidence related to sexual assault cases.

The proposal passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in May as part of another piece of legislation, and cleared a major hurdle in the U.S. House just last week.

"I think that’s a great example of the fact that an individual can make a difference," Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, told Refinery29.

Shaheen spoke to Refinery29 from Washington about the legislation, a new push to recognize the contribution women have made to the country, and how we can get more women to run for office.

What are you trying to achieve with this legislation?
"One of the things we know is that sexual assault is one of the most underreported and under-punished crimes. I think there are a number of reasons for that, but one of the unfortunate reasons is because those people who are victims of sexual assault often find the criminal justice system — that it’s not very friendly and supportive of trying to get justice for them.

"The legislation that we worked on is an effort to make the system work better for victims of sexual assault. There are some basic supports that every survivor of sexual assault ought to be entitled to. They ought to be able to know what’s available to them; they ought to be able to get the results of the rape kit; that testing should be able to be done for them. The rape kit should be preserved for the same amount of time as the statute of limitations on sexual assault, and they should be able to access the results of any analysis.

"We are way past the point where campuses need to take action [on sexual assault]."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen
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"That would have helped in the case of Amanda Nguyen. Massachusetts has a very long period for bringing charges against someone who is the perpetrator of sexual assault. But if the rape kit is destroyed six months after the crime, then you’ve lost the most important evidence in most cases to bring somebody to justice. And she learned that she wasn’t even going to be informed about that destruction. If she hadn’t asked and been so persistent, that would have happened without her even knowing. There are some basic changes that I think, and fortunately the Senate agrees, need to be made in order to better support survivors of sexual assault."

On a lot of these issues, you’d need some action on the state level, as well, in terms of funding and things like that.
"You do. What we’re hoping is that this will serve as a model for state legislatures. We’ve already had interest and heard from several states that are interested in pursuing it."

One in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while attending college. What specifically do you think we can do to address the issue and support survivors on that level?
"Well, there’s legislation in the Senate now to help address that, but one of the most important things is to raise awareness, both about the problem and about what you can do if you’re assaulted, what might be available on campus in terms of shelter, or a center where people can go to get help and find out what they can do.

"There needs to be a better effort to crack down on data collection on campuses so that we know how many sexual assaults are occurring. Unfortunately, campuses have been reluctant to provide that information because I think they see it as an impact on their reputation, and there should be a zero tolerance. It’s the challenge we’ve been having in the military. You can’t keep saying, 'This is wrong and we need to address it,' and see the problem continue to grow and exist at the same level and think you’re having an impact.
"[College campuses] need to do some self-examination. When I was in the state Senate, we worked on this issue in New Hampshire, and one of the things that we learned is that a lot of colleges had their own way of dealing with sexual assault. Instead of bringing it to the police and having it prosecuted within the criminal justice system, they tried to keep it quiet on campus and deal with it in that way. What that meant, too many times, was that the people who were the victims of sexual assault were the ones who were penalized as opposed to the perpetrator. We are way past the point where campuses need to take action."

You were a big supporter of the push to put a woman on the $20 bill. It’s going to happen. How do you feel about that?
"I’m very excited. I think it needs to happen sooner than the Treasury thinks it needs to happen, so I think we need to continue to push to expedite the process there. But I think it’s very exciting because our money, our paper money, is symbolic.

"It’s a reflection of what we hold dear, no pun intended, in our society, and the fact that we have recognized so many men on our paper currency who have been important to our history, I think is good, but it suggests that it was only men who built this country. And we know that that’s not true. Recognizing the role that women had to play is very important.

"Having Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill will be very exciting, and having women on the $10 bill will also be a positive step. I would point out, apropos [of] the issue you were raising about how to get millennial women involved, this really came out of the online effort to put women on the $20 — that’s what it was called, 'Women on [20s]' — and thousands of people weighed in on the importance of doing that, on who it should be. They had a contest on who you would put on the $20, and Harriet Tubman was the winner of that. And now she is going to be on the $20, so that’s a great example of the difference that people all across this country can make at the grassroots level."

"People need to recognize that in a democracy, it only works if people vote."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

I know you said you want to see these bills in circulation sooner, but right now it’s [scheduled for] 2020, which is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Are there any other significant milestones you hope to see women achieve between then and now?
"Well, I hope to see a woman president this year. Again, that’s another reason why I hope young women will get involved, because there is a dramatic difference — if you look at the issues your polling showed young women cared about, there is a huge difference between Hillary Clinton and her opponent on equal pay, student loan debt, access to reproductive health rights, on economic inequality, gun rights. There could not be a more dramatic difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on those issues."

In our poll,
78% of millennial women said they think that this election will impact their lives. But when you look at how many women say they’re definitely going to go vote, it drops to closer to 6 in 10. We were pretty disappointed to see young women think, "This is going to change my life," but not making that connection that, "Yes I should definitely go vote."
"You know, elections have consequences. And we’re seeing that now in Britain with their vote to leave the E.U. And I think people are looking at that and saying, 'Oh well, I voted because I was mad, and now I realize that there are going to be economic consequences to what I did, and that’s going to affect me.' And people need to recognize that in a democracy, it only works if people vote.

"For young people, this is particularly true because they’re looking at their whole lives, and this election is going to have a real impact on the future. So many people have student loan debt. In New Hampshire, that’s a huge issue — we have the second-highest student loan debt in the country. Students should be allowed to refinance their student loans. It’s a no-brainer. If we elect Hillary Clinton, I think we’re going to be able to do that. I don’t think Donald Trump has a plan for how that’s going to work. There are real impacts to what happens in this election, and I hope people will come out and vote because it is important to their futures. They’re absolutely right about that. So they should have a role in shaping what that future is."

You have been in elected office for a long time and broken barriers in being both a governor and a member of the U.S. Senate. Women are still greatly underrepresented in all levels of government. What is the No. 1 thing you think we can do to get more women in politics?
"To get women engaged in campaigns and to get women to run. Back when I was director at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School at Harvard, one of the things I always found disappointing was when I’d have a room full of undergrads…talking about politics and ask, ‘So, how many of you would like to run for office someday?’ [and] almost every male hand in the room would go up, but maybe a third of the young women. We can’t elect women to office if women don’t run. And the more women run, the more women we’re going to elect. It’s one of the most important things.
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"You don’t have to start out running for Congress, or running for your state legislature. You can run for your local school board or as a library trustee. There are all kinds of elective offices, particularly at the local level, that go unfilled every year across this country because people don’t want to take the time, and it’s a tremendous learning experience — you can contribute to your community. It’s one of the things we need to encourage everyone to do, but particularly young women, because at the rate we’re going, it’ll be another hundred years before we achieve parity in Congress."

Why don’t more women run?
"There’s a lot of polling about that that suggests that they’re concerned about their families, they don’t want to raise money, they’re concerned about the negative coverage often of elections and candidates, which I understand — that is challenging. But I also think that the rewards far outweigh the difficulties."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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