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Though Sexual Assault Awareness Month has come to a close, I can’t help but think about the survivors, whose stories I encountered during my role as Alex Cabot on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I still think about those stories. Even though it was just television, those stories often represented real people and some of the all-too real struggles they can face trying to access health services and get the care they need and deserve in the wake of a traumatic incident or sexual assault.
We still have a long way to go to properly support survivors of sexual assault in this country and around the world. It’s no wonder so few women feel comfortable reporting their rapes; they are often met with stigma, shame and a deafening lack of services and care. And with attacks on abortion access and efforts to “defund” Planned Parenthood, the most vulnerable survivors are made even more vulnerable as their rights to access care are stripped away. Despite admirable efforts by former Vice President Joe Biden to address this epidemic of sexual violence particularly on college campuses, the current administration threatens to take us backwards. Just last month, it was Vice President Mike Pence who cast the deciding vote in a bill to withhold federal funds from Planned Parenthood.
This extends not only to American women, but women in countries where abortion is not simply banned but criminalized. On a recent visit to Senegal as a member of the Planned Parenthood Global Advisory Board, I met women who have also experienced sexual assault. The most twisted and horrifying thing about all this was that I was meeting them in jail. In Senegal, abortion is a crime, and women who seek an abortion can be imprisoned for up to five years. This means the choices for women who are raped in Senegal are grim. With safe and legal abortion out of the question, women who want to end their pregnancy are faced with the dilemma of seeking a clandestine abortion or doing nothing. For women who have been raped, being forced to carry to term is yet another trauma on their bodies and their autonomy. And for those who risk a clandestine abortion, they face not just a potentially unsafe procedure but the threat of jail.
Fortunately, some organizations are pushing back against this gross injustice, and I had the pleasure of meeting one of them on the ground in Dakar. L’Association des Juristes Senegalaises (AJS) runs a legal aid clinic representing women in court on abortion-related charges and in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. Their goal is to build an adequate case load for a class action case to change abortion laws, even as the lawyers continue to seek immediate redress for individual women. For example, they secured the release of — and obtained financial compensation for — one woman who had been wrongly imprisoned for having an illegal abortion, even though she had suffered a miscarriage. They also represented a young girl in court who successfully testified against her father who had raped her. He was convicted and jailed for 10 years for incest.
As AJS seeks to overturn oppressive abortion laws in Senegal, it’s shocking to think there are people in America seeking to roll back what liberties we do have.
Whether in Senegal or the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter, survivors of sexual assault have the same basic needs. After having their control over their own bodies taken away from them, the last thing they need is for the government to come in and take away their last semblance of agency. They need comprehensive support to meet their physical and mental health needs. They need social support to get out of abusive relationships. And fundamentally, they need the freedom to make these decisions for themselves without the threat of being charged with a crime and imprisoned.
Stephanie March is an actress who spent 12 years starring on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She’s also a member of the Planned Parenthood Global Advisory Board.
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Taraji P. Henson