The House approved a historic bill of rights for survivors of sexual assault on Tuesday, enshrining a set of rules for how they should be treated when they come forward.
The federal Survivors' Bill of Rights, which comes amid continued outrage over the case of a woman sexually assaulted by Stanford student Brock Turner, was drafted to help make reporting sexual assault easier and with the goal of making it less emotionally trying for survivors.
"This [bill] becoming law means so much, not just for the 25 million estimated rape survivors across America, but to me personally," Amanda Nguyen, the 24-year-old founder of the sexual assault advocacy group Rise, told BuzzFeed News from inside the Capitol. "My own personal story is on the line here."
The bill, which was approved unanimously in the House after clearing the Senate, encompasses federal cases of sexual assault, including those that allegedly take place in the military, on federal land, or in National tribes.
The legislation primarily deals with the treatment of rape kits, the two-to four-hour medical forensic exams survivors of sexual assault undergo to help gather evidence, including the DNA of the assailant. The bill specifies that survivors not be prevented from receiving the kit or charged for the procedure and that they be informed of the test results. Evidence gathered during the process must also be preserved for around 20 years.
The bill also requires that the survivor be notified at least two months before their kit is scheduled to be destroyed and allows for them to ask for it to be preserved with a simple email.
The bill was authored by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire after Nguyen walked into her office asking for her support. Since then, the bill has gained bipartisan support in Congress, including from House Speaker Paul Ryan, who sent out an email Tuesday encouraging support of the bill.
The Senate must still review a small technical change before the bill is sent to President Obama's desk for his signature.
In the House Tuesday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte made reference to the powerful letter written by the Stanford assault victim as evidence of the way survivors are often mistreated after filing a report. The bill's co-sponsors, Republican Rep. Mimi Walters and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, recounted stories of assault survivors who were mistreated by police and the state after reporting their assault.
One survivor, named Marisa, "thought her rape would be the most traumatic experience of her life," Lofgren said. "Even more traumatic was the way she was repeatedly victimized by the system after being raped."
One of the survivors mistreated by the state after reporting her rape was Nguyen herself. About two years ago, Nguyen was raped and underwent a rape kit in Massachusetts, she told BuzzFeed News. Even though the statute of limitations to prosecute rape in Massachusetts is 15 years, Nguyen was told the state could destroy her rape kit in six months unless she filed an "extension request."
But she said no one at the hospital told her how to file the request, and over the following months, Nguyen found herself swept up in an endless bureaucratic loop of unanswered emails and office referrals.
Every six months, Nguyen still has to repeat the search in order to make sure her kit is not destroyed.
“The lack of substantive rights for survivors of sexual assault prevents them from having full access to the justice system," Walters said in a statement. "But today, the House of Representatives has taken an important step towards repairing this uneven patchwork."
However, passing a federal bill is only part of the battle, Nguyen told BuzzFeed News. The vast majority of sexual assault cases are prosecuted in state court.
"After this passes in Congress, I will probably be in tears," Nguyen said, the joy audible in her voice, "but after the president of the United States signs this into law, we need to get this established in every single state house."
Ema O'Connor is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ema O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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