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Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: Remarks at UN General Assembly Side Event on "Challenging the Stigma of Sexual Violence: The Role of the International Community"

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you Baroness Anelay and Special Representative Bangura for your leadership in focusing the international community on this pressing issue.

Stigma from sexual violence casts a shadow over both survivors and society. Survivors afraid to seek aid at a clinic won’t seek justice at a court. And when truth cannot emerge, recovery and reconciliation cannot move forward. If it becomes socially accepted to shun one vulnerable group, it can open the door to broader bigotry against others, such a religious and ethnic minorities or LGBTI persons. So fighting stigma goes hand in hand with a broader effort to build more just and inclusive communities.

I see three areas where we can jumpstart the international partnership needed to end the stigma from sexual violence.

First, let’s share examples from our own experience. Over the last 25 years, the United States passed several laws to strengthen the rights, criminal justice response, and access to services for survivors of sexual violence.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act outlawed practices that reinforced stigma, such as preventing offenders from using victims’ past sexual conduct against them in trial. The 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act established victims’ rights in federal proceedings, including the right to be treated with respect for their dignity and privacy. For other countries looking to develop a more comprehensive approach to sexual violence and stigma, look at these laws. And the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded protections for survivors of crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

Second, let’s take a hard look at whether our domestic and international programs inadvertently reinforce stigma. For example, do we support police that require survivors of sexual violence to undergo polygraphs or repeated questioning that can add to their trauma? Or do we train police how to properly treat victims? Do we support medical units that require invasive physical examinations and testing for sexually transmitted disease? Or do we provide the correct equipment and education to ensure personal dignity? We need to answer these questions and move toward a “no harm” approach.

Third, let’s embed in our existing programs elements that proactively challenge the attitudes that sustain stigma. That’s what the U.S. has strived to do in our existing work. For example, next month, the U.S. will launch a civil society program in northern Nigeria to prepare communities to welcome back many women and girls trafficked by Boko Haram. Helping tackle misconceptions about survivors’ experiences and providing counseling for survivors and their families is a critical, proactive way to tackle stigma.

In the wake of sexual violence, we must honor the survivors, not shame them. We must raise their voices, not silence them. We must afford survivors the respect and dignity their attackers did not – by standing with them as full members of our communities.

Thank you.