You don’t ask for it, but some things change you. Whether that’s the obviously dangerous direction this country is heading, or maybe something more personal, some things in life wake you and shake you to your core.
At 15, I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration in my Honors English class, with other well-to-do white high school freshmen from a small Pennsylvania suburb. As the first African-American president, I knew this was historic, but my interest in politics stopped there.
I kept a safe distance from politics because distance was safe then. I felt removed from it all but I was OK in that separation, I was protected by that separation. I used “Thanks Obama” as a joke to place blame on the small inconveniences that made life so hard as a high school student, like if I couldn’t watch Modern Family that night. It all started out as a joke, when I could still make jokes about politics.
But then it happened to me, and I realized that politics are more than just a joke. Politics matter. Leadership matters. Action matters. People matter. Voices matter. As a survivor of sexual assault, I no longer have the luxury of my naiveté, my ignorance. Being quiet and complacent is not an option anymore. Instead, I have a fire of activism within me and many reasons to say it in earnest:
Like 1 in 6 American women I experienced sexual assault. It took me more years than I will admit to tell anyone what had happened to me. I simply didn’t want to accept that it had happened. I didn’t want others to look at me differently. I didn’t want to acknowledge that, yes, I felt differently inside.
Like most survivors, I also knew the person who assaulted me and was unsure and scared of the backlash I’d face if I told anyone. Would I be believed? Would I be made fun of? Would absolutely nothing happen and would no one care?
Looking back, I realize these are burdens I shouldn’t have felt. They are byproducts of a society that has consistently ignored this issue and deflected blame onto the wrong party. People will believe you, people will support you, and people do care.
At 22, I reflect on the past eight years of my government and my president with absolute admiration and respect. Of all of the hats I could wear to address specifically how I went from a snarky teen to my position today, I want to focus on my role as a woman in America. I know that President Obama made my world a safer place. I know I have witnessed an incredible amount of change in my lifetime, and that that progress is now being threatened. I want to look at just three things President Obama has accomplished that we cannot afford to abandon.
In March, 2009, President Obama created the CWG to ensure that each federal agency ”takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support and that the true purpose of our government is to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people.” Emphasis mine, to remind us all that our government works when it works for us. We the people. Wouldn’t it be easier to solve problems if this sentiment was just applied to everything? Issues regarding women, immigrants, minorities, you name it. All things possible for all people.
Stemming from the CWG and in connection to his efforts on healthcare, President Obama secured one of the most progressive pieces of legislature regarding reproductive rights in 2015. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies were required by law to cover the costs of any and all “contraceptive services.” This legislation requires that insurance providers cover this cost for ALL people, not just those insured under the ACA.
While methods of contraception—specifically birth control pills—were legalized in the United States in 1960, they were a far cry from accessible. As a result, the struggle for reproductive rights has endured.
But 50 years later, with the passage of this policy, accessible contraception is now a promise. It means that women no longer bear a financial burden (see: de facto punishment) for decisions over their own bodies. The cost of birth control is no longer a deciding factor. THIS IS A BIG DEAL! Your employer, your insurance company, your government cannot punish you for your decision to use birth control.
However, the work of the CWG does not stop there. Acting as a co-chair, along with the office of the Vice President, the CWG was instrumental in the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.
The Obama administration, including the tireless work of Joe Biden, deserves immense credit for their efforts to end the heinous acts of sexual violence on college campuses, where 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (statistics according to RAINN). With these absurdly high numbers, I can confidently say that sexual assault has happened to someone you know, someone you care about, and someone you love.
On January 22, 2014, Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Because you can’t manage what you can’t measure, Obama used his executive power to conduct studies to measure the magnitude of the problem, publish a report detailing the current state of sexual assault on college campuses, and to provide a list of recommendations for addressing the issue.
Two words that are somehow extremely comforting and extremely disheartening. Of course there is comfort in solidarity and support, but it also means there are others who have endured the same awful, unforgivable experiences.
It’s too soon to measure the true effects of this report and this task force. But in the face of an obstructionist Congress, Obama took important steps to acknowledge a long-ignored problem, and to provide actionable steps that colleges and universities must take to address this obvious crisis that affects far too many Americans.
It makes me physically sick to know that the President-Vice President duo of Obama-Biden could push through these measures and have to turn over the reigns to a man who brags about the very crimes they fought against. But it also makes me incredibly proud that I witnessed such a progressive presidency. Vice President Biden put it best, “(women) have every single right to expect to be free from violence and sexual abuse.”
The President’s task force and report are an incredible leap forward, towards prevention. Changing the way people view this issue may be the most important step for decreasing the prevalence of acts of sexual assault on college campuses. But sadly, acts of sexual violence will always happen. So President Obama didn’t stop here, and fought for the rights of victims of this crime.
Last year, President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which reformed how states must handle accusations of rape and the resulting rape kits. Through this legislation, these kits can’t be destroyed without the individual’s permission, and survivors are not responsible for paying for their own rape kits. Would murder evidence ever be destroyed before trial? Would physical assault evidence ever be destroyed without being tested? Of course not. Evidence of rape is no longer treated differently.
One of the reasons sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes is because of the enormous struggle associated with reporting, filing charges, and convicting the guilty party. Before this Act, laws and procedures for rape and sexual assault varied state-by-state. Complexities and costs discouraged victims from reporting.
For the first time, the specific challenges faced by sexual assault survivors are part of U.S. law. So when these crimes do occur, the rights of the victim are the priority. That seems like an obvious position, but until now, it had not been true. With this act, a survivor’s rights are legally more protected than those of the attacker.
I have many issues with this Congress, but I’ll give them this. This bill passed without opposition in both the Senate and the House. This makes a statement (that honestly shouldn’t have to be said at all but here we are) and gives me hope for the future of our government. Both sides of the aisle agree on this; both sides are standing together on this major issue.
Consistency in the treatment of sexual assault cases hopes to encourage more people to come forward and seek justice. Consistency in the Obama administration’s careful treatment of women’s rights, from reproductive health to sexual violence, encourages me that a safer world is achievable.
I never thought I’d be so moved by a president and so shaken about the future without him. So, this is a strange thing for me to be writing in Obama’s last week as our president. A week before his legacy will be second-guessed and dissected by a Republican Congress and a White House that is dangerously anti-women.
But I do want to thank you, Mr. President, for moving one step further for reproductive rights and survivor’s rights. Thank you for affirming that my body is my own and that the government has no place in my decisions about reproductive health. Thank you for demonstrating that you understand and care about women’s issues.
The work is not done. If anything, we have to fight even harder now to protect the progress we’ve made. But even though the future before me is uncertain and scary, I have hope.
And even more importantly, I have my voice, which I will use to say to you, unsarcastically, Thanks Obama.