Preventing Sexual Assault Requires Stronger Institutions

As a college student, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses resonates deeply with me. During the past year, as campuses around the country have spoken out about sexual assaults, I have seen the same happen at my university. I have watched as many of my peers have courageously spoken out about their own experiences of sexual violence, igniting a campus-wide dialogue that has manifested itself in awareness events, discussions among friends, and even protests. Seemingly overnight, something that was rarely spoken about came to occupy a central place in campus life.

My fellow students and I were shocked by the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses nationwide that has come to light. It is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men will be victims of sexual assault during college. Looking around a large lecture hall and realizing that those statistics are referring to many of your classmates and friends is a very sobering experience. As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to an end – marked in April in the United States – I thought it was important to take a deeper look at an issue that profoundly affects those with whom I live and study each day.

The failure of colleges and universities to respond appropriately to this problem is alarming. In both national publications and my own college newspaper, I have seen a trend of universities conducting inadequate investigations and allowing rapists to go unpunished. Even more disturbing are the horror stories of college and university disciplinary processes creating hostile environments for survivors and the trend of victim blaming. Clearly, the very institutions meant to be resources for survivors have in many cases not only failed them, but have further contributed to their traumatization. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of survivors on college campuses report their sexual assault. Though many factors contribute to this low reporting rate, fear of speaking out has been driven in large part by the mishandling of institutional investigations.

My internship with the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has only reinforced my conviction that strengthening institutions is one of the most important ways to combat sexual violence. Though PHR’s work in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo seeks to address sexual violence in contexts that may seem worlds away from college campuses in the United States, there are some basic lessons that apply regardless of location. For example, it is essential that the institutions that survivors rely on for medical care, personal security, and/or justice know how to appropriately, effectively, and sensitively handle cases of sexual violence. Furthermore, these institutions must refrain from victim blaming, which ultimately reinforces the culture of impunity surrounding sexual violence.

Fortunately, this past year has shown that increased awareness has the ability to bring about accountability. An article published earlier this month by the Huffington Post reported that there are currently 106 colleges and universities under federal investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault; this is nearly double the number of institutions that were being investigated at the same time last year. Furthermore, many colleges and universities have started taking meaningful steps to establish sexual assault prevention programs and reform their procedures for handling cases. In doing so, more survivors have been empowered to come forward and tell their stories. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I challenge you to ask yourself what you can do to help prevent sexual assault, to strengthen the institutions that address it, and to shift the stigma from survivor to perpetrator. Your advocacy and support of survivors has the ability to foster meaningful change.

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