When Brock Turner received just a six month sentence for sexual assault, more than a million people told the world that they are not satisfied with the justice the system provided.
One woman, with the courage to tell her story, inspired millions of people to lend their voices to calls for justice in the case—the Stanford community stood up, our country’s Vice President spoke out and women around the country who could see themselves in her story found the courage to tell their stories too.
As more women find the space to share their stories, they drive forward existing conversations, start new ones, and in turn inspire more stories and more action in an incredible and relentless cycle.
When I was fifteen, I heard a group of women at a Roe v. Wade event in Denver talk about their experiences with abortion and their commitment to ensure no one else had to endure what they had endured. I was inspired and compelled to join them in that commitment and began volunteering with NARAL in Colorado. What I experienced – the power of story to inspire action, community, and change – is now happening at scale for women, and men, all across the country.
Women are speaking up for themselves, connecting their stories to those of others and demanding action from institutions that have ignored or abandoned them. As a lifelong advocate for women’s equality, I’ve always been tuned into these conversations, but this year something changed. I see the conversation now as a national one, playing out on the news, on social media, in conversations with friends and family and in the way I see women engaging on Change.org, where I work now.
Naval Officer Ruth Moore was raped twice by her supervisor. Frustrated by the lack of support she received, she started a petition asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand mental health services to include victims of sexual assault. After Ruth, Teresa Young came forward as another military survivor and now the scourge of rape in military is being discussed at the highest levels of government and there is new legislation on the table supported by both Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz.
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Twenty-four year old Amanda Nguyen’s story is also driving forward national legislation – this time to secure a Bill of Rights for survivors, including notification if a rape kit is set to be destroyed. Just days ago, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill, and the next step is a full vote in the House.
Inspired by Amanda’s work, Brenda Tracy, who had her rape kit destroyed, added her voice to the movement and convinced her representatives in Oregon to pass two bills on rape kit testing and changing the statute of limitations on first-degree sex crimes.
When TV personality Maureen O’Boyle’s rapist came up for parole just 30 years into his 50 year sentence, she told her story for the first time, and more than 70,000 people signed her petition demanding that full justice be served.
These women are leading the conversations that will result in institutional reform, and a major cultural shift that will change the topics of discussion at family dinner tables all across America and the experiences of generations of women.
Read more: Dating After Rape
In the US, 63% of our users on Change.org are women. In 2016 alone, there have been almost 4 million signatures on petitions to change the system when it comes to sexual assault, domestic violence, and other issues that disproportionately affect women. On just one petition – Ms. O’Boyle’s – there were more than 24,000 comments, many of them from women sharing their own experiences.
As Vice President Biden said in his open letter to Brock Turner’s victim, “Your story has already changed lives. You have helped change the culture. You have shaken untold thousands out of the torpor and indifference towards sexual violence that allows this problem to continue. Your words will help people you have never met and never will. You have given them the strength they need to fight. And so, I believe, you will save lives.”
This is not the first time we’re having discussions about sexual assault, violence against women, and gender equality. And the conversations we’re having now are still largely missing frank discussion of the role of race in women’s dramatically varying experiences with justice and equity in the United States. For this moment of opportunity to be fully realized, that omission must be resolved through deliberate outreach and inclusion. These conversations must include women from all backgrounds in safe, supportive spaces to share their stories.
Still, this is an unprecedented moment of opportunity—one where the voices of women are elevated, the stories of their experiences are heard, and an unstoppable movement can coalesce to create real cultural, legal, and institutional change.
Shayna Englin is the Managing Director of North America at Change.org. With 20 years of experience in campaigns and advocacy at all levels of government, Shayna is an expert on grassroots advocacy strategies.