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Susan B. Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, Speaks at the 4th Annual Army Sexual Harassment / Assault Response Prevention Summit


Arlington, VA
United States

Good afternoon. My name is Susan Carbon, and I am the Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice. I am very honored and grateful to be here with you today.

The Office on Violence Against Women is charged with providing federal leadership to help improve the nation’s capacity to end violence against women, including domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. We are responsible for the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act also known as VAWA. Passed in 1994 with broad bipartisan support, VAWA was borne of a grassroots movement that showed the nation that how we responded to violent crimes against women was woefully inadequate and morally reprehensible.

Over the past 16 years we have witnessed a sea change in how our communities respond to these crimes. Cases of domestic violence that were once viewed as “family matters” are now confronted with a zero tolerance policy. VAWA has seen several reauthorizations that have greatly expanded the scope of the work and acknowledged the need for greater resources required to advance the mission.

Sexual assault has while a significant part of the Act has not made the same gains as domestic violence. We are actively working to change this and bring parity to this crime.

Sexual assault is a complex crime that affects every sector of our society. Sexual assault knows no gender, geographic location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation; none of us is immune, and all of us are responsible to end it. As a nation, the challenge we face is to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population of victims, prosecute offenders and work toward producing a shift in how we respond to sexual assault.

The statistics tell us that we have our work cut out for us. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, there were 182,000 reported incidents of rape or sexual assault committed against females age 12 or older. Fifty-seven percent of these incidents of rape and sexual assault were committed by an offender whom the victim knew and may have trusted; one in five of all rapes and sexual assaults against females were committed by an intimate partner.

For some populations, rates of sexual violence are even higher: alarmingly, nearly one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. College students are also especially vulnerable with studies suggesting that 1 in 4 female college students will be sexually assaulted over the course of her college years.

These statistics are intolerable. We can and must do better. Sexual violence has no place in our society.  Whether it is used as a weapon of war against the masses or to break a single individual’s spirit, the impact of sexual assault is devastating. It is unequivocally a violation of human rights because the crime of rape so profoundly usurps victims of their rights to sovereignty over their own persons.


That is why we must work harder to educate, raise awareness, and prevent sexual assault. I am thrilled to see that the Army has made this mission a priority.

Something that may seem obvious, but bears repeating is that a fundamental obstacle to addressing sexual assault is our reluctance to talk about it. The theme to your conference: “Committed to Achieving Cultural Change to Stop Sexual Assault” gets to this very point. Our ultimate goal is simple to state but harder to accomplish. We are trying to effect profound social change. If we think about social change over the course of United States history- those movements that have produced major shifts in our cultural thinking, we may associate a number of images- protests, rallies, weighty Supreme Court cases, but ultimately, in order to change the hearts and minds of individuals and communities, we have had the difficult conversations.

With respect to sexual assault, these conversations have been tough to come by. It remains troubling that when we do talk about sexual assault, like in those high profile cases reported through the media, we continue to witness a fundamental lack of understanding of the crime, including a seemingly never-ending victim blaming and theorizing about how rape can be prevented by dressing in a certain way or by staying away from certain areas.

This is the case both with stranger rape and when the victim knows his or her perpetrator. We see the grip that myths and misconceptions continue to have on our society. The idea that “real” rape must involve a weapon, a dark alley and a stranger, and that there must be visible bruises, only hit the surface of the many myths.

The perpetuation of these myths impacts the way that all of us respond to sexual violence. Moreover, it affects whether a victim comes forward and seeks the help he or she needs. Sadly, sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes in America. In fact, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2008 less than half of rapes or sexual assaults against women were reported. We know that reasons for not reporting include fear of not being believed, lack of trust in the criminal justice system, shame and embarrassment, and self-blame and guilt.

And this must change.

To achieve the cultural transformation we seek, we must move the national conscience through meaningful dialogue. We must start by really listening to survivors. Their voices are essential to any effort we undertake to change the landscape of sexual assault. This was true with domestic violence a generation ago and it is true with sexual violence today.

There are dramatic differences in the way communities respond to sexual violence. Some communities have highly-trained, coordinated teams of responders from the health, law enforcement, legal, and victim services sectors. In other instances, we know that victims are subjected to humiliating interrogations and treated with suspicion. Rape kit evidence may sit for months or even years without being analyzed. Victims may be left in the dark on the progress of their case and offered little to no support or services.

Different communities also bring with them distinct assets and challenges. We know that solutions must be designed locally to take into account cultural realities. As members of the military, you know this first hand. Your ‘day to day’, the pressures you endure, and your shared mission- the most critical for the nation -are all unique to the military experience. The values you live by to realize this mission- courage, loyalty, trust – entrusting each other with your very own lives-- define what it means to serve in the military.

This is why I am encouraged to see that the Army has molded its sexual assault strategy in ways that resonate with soldiers. The Department of Defense has been a leader in its advocacy of a comprehensive prevention approach to sexual assault. It has taken innovative strategies and tools including bystander intervention, social marketing and public service announcements and training at all levels of service. I was so pleased to learn about the Army’s I. A.M STRONG campaign (Intervene.Act.Motivate) – this effort can go a long way to educate soldiers on the crime of sexual assault and how to intervene responsibly to help prevent sexual assaults from occurring. We too, at the Department of Justice, are committed to increasing our own work in the area of prevention.

We are also working to address violence at earlier points in life. For example, we are focusing a great deal of efforts on teen dating violence and funding programs that provide young people with tools to recognize abusive behavior in relationships. We are also invested in providing a safety net for children who have been exposed to violence or victimized by violence. Intervening at an early age is critical if we are to break the cycle of violence that plays out through generations.

To be clear, we will continue the critical work of responding to the needs of victims. In order to do this effectively, all of the required systems: health care, criminal justice and victim services must be informed and coordinated. But equally as important to a coordinated approach amongst professionals, is the collaboration with communities. Communities must be educated on the impact of sexual violence and invested in working toward solutions. The idea coordinated military-civilian response was a key recommendation from the Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence several years ago.

So what are we doing at the Department of Justice to help communities build their responses to sexual assault? We are starting by elevating sexual assault so that it receives the resources and attention it so desperately needs. Sexual assault will no longer remain an afterthought, but will be woven into the very fabric of our daily and long term work. Understanding this, OVW has focused resources toward increasing enhancing our knowledge of and response to sexual assault.

For example, we just launched the unprecedented $8 million Sexual Assault Demonstration Initiative (SADI), which is an effort to improve the way that sexual assault survivors are served. Across the nation, many rape crisis services are provided by dual or multi-service agencies that lack sufficient expertise in serving sexual assault survivors. Through the SADI, OVW will fund dual/multi-service agencies to develop and implement new and innovative models of service provision for sexual assault survivors. We expect to select approximately six sites to serve in the demonstration pilot and announce awards early this summer. Our hope is that we will we will discover new effective approaches that can be adapted nationwide.

This past October, in coordination with the White House, we hosted a Roundtable on Sexual Violence in the United States. Participants represented a broad array of disciplines and also included survivors. The discussion focused on barriers to advancing the issue of SA and how the overall response to sexual violence could improve. The roundtable provided valuable information that is helping direct OVW’s efforts moving forward, and it serves as a starting point for future conversations with other stakeholders. The report of the roundtable will be released shortly.

OVW is also revising the National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations, which is a guide for health care providers’ response to sexual assault. It is designed to assist health care personnel to address patients' health concerns through an approach that appreciates the trauma patients may experience, promote healing, and maximize the collection and preservation of evidence from patients for potential use in the legal system.

We are working the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) on their DNA Backlog Reduction Program, which provides funding to assist states and units of local government to determine the underlying causes of the backlog, create new systems for tracking, screening and testing DNA evidence, and apply strategies to prevent backlogs from developing in the future.

For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, OVW will join the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) to promote greater public awareness and encourage involvement at the grassroots level. We will promote the importance of bystander intervention – the idea that individuals can be empowered to intervene to prevent sexual assault -- something already well underway in the Military.

We are also fortunate to be supported in our work by leadership in the Department of Justice and through the Administration. The President was the first president ever to proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. He has undertaken an unprecedented effort in our nation’s history to bring the concerns of women and girls to the forefront of U.S. government policies and decisions through the creation of the White House Council on Women Girls by executive order in 2009. The council involves 23 cabinet level agencies and the White House to ensure that all policies factor in how they affect women and girls. For the first time ever, there is a White House Advisor on Violence Against Women works to ensure that the victim advocacy perspective is present in federal policy making.

The work you do is not easy. The service you provide, the sacrifices you and your families make for our country cannot be overstated. We are inspired by your strength and commitment. As members of the military, you are leaders in our nation. Your communities admire you. Your voices matter. And your voices will make a key difference in changing the national dialogue on sexual assault. We can work together to achieve cultural change to stop sexual assault. This is our moral imperative and it can be done, but it will take everyone owning the problem and working collectively toward solutions.

I look forward to continuing our work together toward our shared vision for communities that are free from sexual violence. Thank you for all you do to help make this a reality. This conference is clearly an important step. Thank you for your service to our nation.

Updated September 17, 2014