Protection from sexual violence is a human right

With the debate season closed and the presidential election near, some commentators have noted the silence from the candidates on issues such as poverty and the war in Afghanistan. Yet, it has gone largely unnoticed that, in the 2012 presidential debates, the word ‘rape’ was never used. Not once. In the only vice presidential debate of 2012, the word ‘rape’ was mentioned, yet only within the context of reproductive rights.

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Have rape, sexual assault, and violence against women become so normalized that they do not even merit discussion? In December 2011, the New York Times reported on a government study that found that 1 in 5 women living in the U.S. have been raped in their lifetime. According to RAINN, every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted for an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year. Because of a culture of rape, 54% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

Violence against women in the United States can no longer be treated solely as a private sphere issue; it is a human rights issue and relevant international human rights law applies. Governmental institutions need not be directly involved in the perpetration of the violence against women. Governments have a responsibility to utilize all available resources to prevent these violent crimes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the arrest rate in 2010 for accused rapists in the U.S. was 24%, the exact same rate as in 1970. Meanwhile, according to a CBS investigative report, 79% of murder suspects and 51% of those suspected of committing aggravated assault are arrested. Why such a disparity?

The same CBS investigation found that at least 20,000 rape kits in the U.S. have not been tested. While rape kits are not the panacea, actually analyzing the evidence they provide, as should be expected, dramatically increases the likelihood of accountability. In New York City, prosecutors decided there would be, according to the CBS report, “no more free passes for alleged rapists.” New York City prosecutors tested every single kit, a total of more than 1,300 last year alone. This change in policy has increased the arrest rate in NYC to 70%, or about triple the national average. The success rate in New York City exemplifies why this is a question of international human rights because it demonstrates what can be accomplished when appropriate measures are implemented by our institutions.

CBS Investigators were told that a primary reason rape kits go untested is the cost, as much as $1500 per kit. Yet, these kits contain DNA evidence concerning the crime and its perpetrator. Imagine a situation in which someone was murdered without resolution. And one of the reasons nothing had come from the case was that a significant piece of evidence potentially containing the DNA of the murderer was languishing in some evidence locker. Imagine further that the reason it was not tested was that it would cost too much.

Rape in our society and its effects on its victims have been and continue to be neglected by our public officials and law enforcement agencies. Josie Slawik, who has worked for a rape crisis hotline in Austin, Texas for two decades asked rhetorically during an interview with a local TV station, "Wouldn't we be upset if one in four girls were infected with the West Nile Virus, which is a horrible thing, but that's how many girls are impacted by rape and sexual assault," said Spann.

Diana Russell and Rebecca Bolen note the political aspects of the prevalence rates of female victimization by rape and sexual assault. In their text, The Epidemic of Rape and Child Sexual Abuse in the United States, Russell and Bolen conclude, “The epidemic of rape…in the United States must be treated as a national emergency as well as a national priority…Continuing to treat these problems as the tragic but unavoidable fate of females is a form of gender discrimination, particularly in a country with the financial resources and know-how to mount a massive campaign to combat these crimes.”

Bachman is a professor of human rights at American University, with a focus in state responsibility for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.