With the stroke of her pen at a ceremonial signing on Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey set into law legislation that protects the rights of sexual assault survivors.
Without the work of two young professionals with Alabama ties, and one sexual assault survivor who’s made it a mission to help survivors nationwide, the bill’s chances were likely slim, however.
Sponsored by state Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollinger’s Island, and Sen. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights ensures those who survive assault will not be charged for a medical forensic exam, the right to a free shower after a forensic exam and the right to not be prosecuted for crimes based on evidence obtained during a medical exam.
The law also requires sexual assault evidence collection kits to be preserved, without charge, for at least 20 years or until a minor victim turns 40, and establishes a framework whereby survivors learn about the availability of sexual assault advocates, protection orders, policies around the storage and disposal of evidence kits and the availability of funds to cover medical costs.
Amanda Nguyen is the founder and CEO of Rise, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that describes itself as a civil rights accelerator that empowers everyday individuals to write their own rights into existence.
Nguyen herself was raped while a student at Harvard University in 2013, and learned only later that the evidence kit, collected over a grueling 6-hour examination after her assault, was destroyed after six months because she hadn’t taken the matter to police, despite the statute of limitations in a rape case in Massachusetts being 15 years.
While working for the White House in 2014 Nguyen drafted the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which in 2016 was passed in an unanimous vote of Congress, becoming only the 21st bill in U.S. history passed unanimously.
Michelle Wang knew Nguyen from their shared time as students at Harvard, Wang to APR by phone Thursday. Wang was in medical school at UAB in 2017 when, during her clinical rotations, she met a survivor of sexual assault.
“Because there wasn’t that system in place of knowing what to do, and what the protocol should have been, she didn’t get a kit done,” Wang said. “I think that was a really hard experience for her, to feel like she didn’t have any means of finding closure.”
Wang reached out to Nguyen and asked is she needed help in Alabama, and soon after she called former state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who first introduced the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights in 2018.
“That was a very empowering experience to feel like a concerned constituent could be heard by their elected official, and he was a huge champion for the bill,” Wang said.
Unfortunately, the bill was introduced late into the 2018 session and failed to pass, but Wang and the others at Rise weren’t finished, and they’d soon have more help.
Travis Chin, a native Alabamian who had worked with Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels in the state Legislature in 2018, and who follows Nguyen on Instagram, reached out to her and asked if she needed help in Alabama, Chin told APR on Thursday.
Chin, who was attending law school at the time, went to work on the bill, reaching out to lawmakers and other students, some of whom spoke about their own experiences with sexual assaults. There’s a stigma of doing so in Alabama, he said.
“Whether it was in college or their childhood, and just to be able to have people feel comfortable and to know that now, at least after today, we’ll actually at least have protections for people who felt that in the past, that they couldn’t speak up and speak on their past,” Chin said.
For Nyugen, getting the bill passed in Alabama, a state with a troubled history of failing to pass bills that protect the vulnerable, getting the bill passed should be a sign to others., she told APR on Thursday.
“If we can make it happen in Alabama, we can make it happen anywhere,” Nyugen said. “And it really comes down to making sure that the voices of the people are heard, of survivors, of constituents. When we make it about the issue, i’s not about politics anymore, and that’s how we were able to get it through here.”
On Nyugen’s last visit to Alabama she met with a sexual assault suvirvor, and said something the woman said to her stuck with her.
“She said ‘Thank you for fighting for us here and not just forgetting about folks in Alabama,;” Nyugen said. First I was confused, and I was like, what do you mean, and she said ‘Sometimes when issues seem like it’s too hard, intractable, that people just say, oh it’s just not possible here, so thank you for trying.’”
“And I think, for me, realizing that it means so much to just try, and now we’re here. We’re beyond trying. We’ve done it. We’ve shown that we can do it, I think that’s incredibly powerful,” Nyugen said.
Alabama’s new law is Rise’s 37th law and protects the civil rights of more than 1.4 million survivors in Alabama, according to the nonprofit, which states that those 37 laws impact more than 85 million people. Rise has trained over 200 organizers in the U.S.