In a year of pivotal reckoning for survivors of sexual violence and the systems that have kept their perpetrators safe, I want to thank the Star Tribune for its extensively reported investigative series on rape in Minnesota: “Denied Justice” (July 22-Aug. 12). As we appreciate its journalism, we must above all acknowledge the bravery of the survivors willing to recount their stories on the record, so others may benefit from the truths this series brings to light.
The #MeToo movement provided the platform to open hearts and minds to understanding how pervasive gender-based violence is. We know that rape exists, and at epidemic proportions. Every two years, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota documents the incidence of gender-based violence that includes domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking, in research we produce with the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School’s Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy on the status of women and girls in Minnesota.
Picture Target Field. Now consider that the number of women in Minnesota who have experienced gender-based violence could fill the Twins stadium 17 times. 17 times! That’s 684,000 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number is almost impossible to fathom.
The shocking statistic was never printed in the media, but ask any woman you know and she will not be surprised. Only one in four report these ghastly crimes; too many know they will be denied justice, their credibility questioned by both law enforcement investigators and a culture that blames its victims. Most never report. This is especially true for women of color and American Indian women, who experience unique barriers to justice due to fractured relationships with law enforcement, language inaccessibility, immigration status and federal laws that prohibit sovereign nations from prosecuting perpetrators who are not American Indian.
At last, the time has come when our media no longer wonder if the hard facts of violence against women are newsworthy. The #MeToo movement has created a cacophony of truth-telling that is impossible to ignore. Reporters are listening; friends, family and co-workers are listening; and our children are listening and looking for change. When you start seeing and understanding others’ lived experiences, you cannot go back. That’s the call of a good neighbor; if you care, you act.
Tightening and clarifying Minnesota’s state law is one remedy. But let’s be clear. While we change laws and seek justice for survivors, we need to look more deeply and identify what causes gender-based violence. The beliefs and attitudes we hold about how women and men should look, dress and behave reveals the biases in all of us.
Inequitable systems (like the laws on the books about rape and subsequent prosecution) do not exist independently or without context. We wrote the laws and created our criminal justice system based on our then-held knowledge and beliefs. When we see that this system is not adequately protecting half of our citizens, each of us must ask, “How do I participate, and how can I change it?”
On a daily basis, each of us as friends, family members, law enforcement, academic leaders, elected officials and employers can change culture and play a role in transformation. Men must lead with us and be a part of the solution. Do our actions reinforce the conditions that have created gender-based violence or work to end it? Do we read the pain survivors share or do we look away? Do we judge and condemn or believe and support survivors when they share their truth? Together we must transform our state to a place where all people can live in safety.
Want to be part of the solution? Three steps you can take today: 1) Promote healthy modeling and messaging of male behavior to prevent violence; 2) speak up when you see violence and support survivors; 3) lead culture change by hosting a training at your workplace, faith group or neighborhood organization. Our ability to listen and change is the first step to acting in new ways to seek safety and justice for all.
Lee Roper-Batker is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.