A recent rape case in Ramsey County signals transformative change in the fight to end violence against women (“Minneapolis man gets 12 years in rape of ex-girlfriend,” July 29). Credit should be given to a wise judge, a strong prosecutor and, most important, the extraordinary survivor, Sarah Super.
At a sentencing hearing last week, our legal system was at its best. The rapist, Alec Neal, received serious consequences for his vicious behavior in planning and carrying out the rape and violent assault on Feb. 18. Super courageously stood before a packed courtroom and gave a powerful statement about her horrific experience. She tied her experience to the epidemic of violence against women and girls that plagues our community and our world.
She was supported by a room full of friends and family members who hung on every word. Judge Judith Tilsen told Neal that she did not accept his attorney’s characterization that his violent conduct was “not who he is” and “incongruous” with his character.
“In fact,” she said, “you are exactly the kind of person who would do this. You did it. You will not recover until you face that.”
Tilsen’s statement has great value to our community. She rejected the excuse we frequently hear from violent men: that their behavior was an anomaly — that they “snapped.” It is an excuse that belies what we know about violence against women. Based on decades of research and experience with men who assault and rape women, we know that this violence is driven by the need for power and control. In the words of prosecutor Yasmin Mullings, Neal sought to punish Super for what he perceived as her rejection of him. In Super’s own words, he is a reflection of men who feel “entitled to the bodies and lives of women.”
Judge Tilsen’s insight applies not only to Neal; it applies to all of us. As the founder of the Minnesota-based Global Rights for Women, a nonprofit created to address this worldwide human rights abuse, I know that cases of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking of women and girls are not rare. They are abuses that are so pervasive and culturally entrenched that they define the character of our community.
These crimes occur locally, nationally and internationally in “pandemic proportions,” according to the United Nations Secretary General. According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or nonpartner violence. Until we accept that many men remain intractable in their goal to dominate women through violence, these cases will persist.
I want to encourage Minnesotans to join in the support of our mission to improve the response to violence against women — particularly the response of our legal system. The many requests we regularly receive from advocates around the world where change is desperately needed are stark evidence of the need for such reform. In some countries where Global Rights for Women currently works — such as Armenia and Morocco — there are no specific laws prohibiting violence against women. Many other countries have very new laws that are not enforced.
I also encourage all Minnesotans to celebrate what happened on July 28. There is no doubt that there is much work to do here in Minnesota and the U.S., as everywhere, to end violence against women and girls. But for now, we can listen to and be grateful for our strong laws on sexual assault and for our legal officials, like Judge Tilsen and prosecutor Mullings, who are deeply committed to enforcing those laws, rejecting excuses and sending a strong message to the community that violence against women will not be tolerated.
And, most important, we can reflect on and appreciate that we have created a community where Sarah Super is not shamed or silenced as a rape victim. Rather, we packed a courtroom with supporters as she declared that “My spirit is strong and my future is bright … and by celebrating all that is right with the world I will have the energy to fix what is wrong. … Our community is going to change because I am here in it.”
Sarah Super is organizing a Break the Silence public event on Aug. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Boom Island in Minneapolis. Super will also speak during Global Rights for Women’s first anniversary event at the Minneapolis Club on Oct. 1.
Cheryl Thomas is the founder and executive director of Global Rights for Women, a local nonprofit working to end violence against women around the world.