Author: Mariska Hargitay (Member, Women Moving Millions & Founder, Joyful Heart Foundation)
Today, hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sit in law enforcement facilities across the United States. Hundreds of thousands of kits. Untested for years, many for more than a decade. And behind each of those kits is a person—a sexual assault survivor—waiting for justice, waiting for closure, or not waiting anymore, because it’s been too long. If that leaves you slack-jawed with outrage, I couldn’t agree more.
I started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse heal and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives. Since then, we have grown into a national organization dedicated to changing the way our society responds to these issues and ending this violence once and for all.
In 2009, thanks to a report by Human Rights Watch, I learned there were more than 12,000 untested rape kits in my hometown of Los Angeles, and I thought my head was going to explode. At Joyful Heart, we immediately made eliminating the backlog our top priority and set out to shine as bright a light as we could on this travesty. That involved studying the best way to re-engage survivors whose kits were part of a backlog, partnering with cities to finally test their kits, working with survivors and advocates to advance legislative change, as well as many other routes of engagement.
I also wanted as many people as possible to know about the backlog, and to hear the stories of the women whose kits have sat on shelves for far too long. A team of dedicated, compassionate filmmakers and I worked with a group of survivors—who truly taught us what courage is—to make I AM EVIDENCE. Our film, which premiered earlier this month, is currently airing on HBO and HBO Latino and can be found on HBO NOW and HBO GO.
I AM EVIDENCE not only tells survivors’ stories, it also showcases the remarkable efforts in communities across America to bring an end to this injustice. I am deeply inspired by the advocates and survivors who have engaged in this work for decades, but they need the help of citizens in every state in this nation to tell their elected officials this matters. With this film—as we elevate the voices of those most impacted— we aim to provoke outrage, mobilize the public, underline the urgency of this effort, and ultimately, engage people across the country to demand change.
We don’t know the full extent of the rape kit backlog because federal agencies and most state governments don’t require police departments to count or track the kits in their possession. Most of the time, the number of untested kits in a particular place is unknown until advocates, survivors, journalists, non-profit organizations, or concerned citizens initiate and lead an inquiry. This has to end.
That is why Joyful Heart is engaged in a national campaign to pass laws in all 50 states that mandate kits be tested, tracked, and acted upon. We have six pillars of reform we are working to pass in every state, as these are the only way to ensure that discretion or resources can no longer be used as excuses to deny sexual assault survivors the justice they deserve.
At its core, this issue is about survivors. What mattered most to me in making I AM EVIDENCE was bringing their stories into the light and giving them the space to tell their truths. And not just of their assaults, but of the effect of a flawed criminal justice system that left their rape kit untested and their cases unresolved.
As the landscape around these issues continues to change dramatically in this extraordinary cultural moment, where women’s individual acts of courage have brought an unprecedented wave of change, I have reflected on what has driven me to work in this field. My most immediate answer is outrage. Put most simply, what I learned made me mad, and I wanted to do something about it. But I have also been driven by hope. And fueled by possibility. And sustained by the joy of community.
My fervent hope for this film is that it will be a catalyst for action, that it will move you to learn about the backlog in your community and in your state, and that it will motivate you to join this movement to end this injustice once and for all. We cannot do it alone.
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