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What Netflix’s “Unbelievable” Can Teach Us About Survivors of Sexual Violence

In the opening scene of the first episode of the Netflix show “Unbelievable,” 18-year-old Marie is huddled under a blanket on her apartment floor. When police arrive on the scene, one officer squats down next to her: “Marie, I’m Officer Curren. I’m here to help you. Can you tell me what happened?” Marie looks at him with a confused stare, as if to say, “Don’t you already know?” and replies “I was raped.”

In his eagerness to get her story, Officer Curren fails Marie right from the start: he does not ask how she is or whether she needs medical attention, nor does he offer her a choice to go somewhere private before recounting what happened. Marie’s traumatization only continues as she is asked again and again to tell her story – through five separate interviews – during which she proclaims, “I already told him,” or, “I already told you.” When she arrives at the hospital, she is photographed, swabbed, and examined, with little explanation provided and little privacy afforded to her. She is discharged abruptly with a bag of medications and the verbal instruction “If you experience any of the following: …shortness of breath, trouble swallowing, hives, thoughts of killing yourself…there’s a number there.” These acts of re-traumatization remove Marie’s agency and cause her to feel victimized. Ultimately, she is so defeated that she recants her report of rape.

“Unbelievable”, which is based on a 2015 article published by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, accurately dramatizes how the treatment of a sexual violence survivor can go so sadly wrong. As a professional working with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to strengthen medical-legal responses to survivors of sexual violence, I recognized Marie’s challenges because they are the same hurdles that survivors around the world navigate every day. From basic lack of compassion on the part of service providers, skepticism of the veracity of Marie’s story, or the lack of coordination among the different sectors responding to her case, the absence of a holistic, survivor-centered approach to care and treatment only exacerbates trauma and can inadvertently thwart investigations and prosecutions. As we launch the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence with the imperative to end impunity for sexual violence and rape, Marie’s experiences as presented in “Unbelievable” are a reminder of how much work we still have ahead of us.

In PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, we have learned that a survivor-centered, trauma-informed approach is the cornerstone of an effective response to sexual violence. Our colleagues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, and elsewhere are helping societies create effective responses to sexual violence survivors by cultivating networks and partnerships among medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals.

The challenges are even more complex when communities are consumed by or have only recently emerged from armed conflict, where sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war. Our partners must often work in situations where the rule of law has disintegrated, security is tenuous, basic resources are limited, and survivors’ needs are both fundamental and extensive. In some communities, the social stigma alone of admitting you were raped can cost you your life or livelihood or result in rejection from your family. It is in these settings that the further importance of survivor-centered responses by law enforcement and health professionals cannot be overstated.

PHR enhances the way medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals tackle these challenges through multi-sectoral training workshops using international standards, best practices for sexual violence documentation, and innovative tools. These methods and materials empower clinicians, police officers, lawyers, and judges to use evidence-based techniques that focus on the survivor to document evidence of sexual violence, strengthen investigations, and deploy forensic expertise to hold perpetrators accountable and improve access to justice for survivors.

Beyond training, we foster strong medical-legal networks of professionals to advance justice on a case-by-case basis to best serve survivors through a coordinated response. One such case is the complex investigation and prosecution of a series of incidents of sexual violence concerning more than 40 young girls – some as young as 18 months – in the DRC. Between 2013 and 2016, these children were systematically taken from their homes and raped in the South Kivu village of Kavumu by members of a local militia. PHR supported a multi-sectoral team to gather accounts from victims and build a case against the perpetrators, including the militia leader, who was a powerful sitting member of parliament. For more than three years, medical and legal professionals met monthly to share information on case developments, safely gather and analyze evidence, and discuss ways to communicate updates to the survivors and their families On December 13, 2017, the court convicted 11 perpetrators, including the lawmaker, of crimes against humanity for rape and murder and sentenced them to life in prison – a watershed moment for justice in the Congo.

After finishing Episode 1 of “Unbelievable” I was unsure if I wanted to watch further episodes dramatizing poor responses to sexual violence. I was glad I pressed on: in the second episode, we are introduced to a new rape survivor, Amber, and a police detective named Duvall, who we would be proud to count as one of our PHR trainees.

When Detective Duvall arrives on the scene, she surveys the police officers, paramedics, and flashing lights filling the parking lot of the apartment complex. She finds Amber in a quiet corner under a tree and approaches her cautiously. Duvall greets her compassionately and asks how she is feeling and if she is willing to answer some questions. She asks Amber if she would like to go somewhere more private to speak. By doing so, Detective Duvall gives Amber agency over her own experience. As the episode unfolds, the detective coordinates with other key players to ensure a smooth investigation of her case, and, ultimately, *spoiler alert* effective prosecution.

The experiences reflected in “Unbelievable” bring into sharp focus the damage that can be caused by an uninformed and unsensitized approach to survivors. But the show also illuminates the transformative potential of an approach that is collaborative, coordinated, and survivor-centered. Through PHR’s work, we seek to ensure that the number of Detective Duvalls in the world grows, and that survivors like Marie and Amber can receive the care they need and the justice they deserve.