Ending the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

Women at college should be able to focus on their academic careers and building their lives, without fearing for their safety.
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The three of us have something in common. Each of us has had a very close look at the devastation caused by sexual assaults on campuses across America every day. We also each hold a deep appreciation for the power of student activism, because as students we have each spoken out, using diligent leadership to improve our communities.

This is National Women's Health Week: an opportunity to speak about the urgent need to end this country's crisis of university sexual assault. The numbers are nothing short of staggering. One in five women will survive a rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates college. That means of the approximately 966,000 women at the bachelor's degree level who will graduate this year, 193,200 will be survivors of rape or attempted rape while in college.

Women at college should be able to focus on their academic careers and building their lives, without fearing for their safety. Instead, students face an epidemic of violence. Our legislators and university leaders need to step up and immediately take action to prevent this violence. We must also remember that sexual violence doesn't happen to just women, and violence against anyone of any gender is unacceptable.

There are many necessary measures that universities must take to combat sexual assault. Survivors and allies across the country have spent years advocating for safer campuses, and as a result, leaders are taking notice. The Obama administration just announced its plan, which is a great first step. Legislators like Rep. Jackie Speier, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Claire McCaskill and others are leading the conversation in Washington, too. Here in California, Senators Hannah-Beth Jackson, Kevin de Leon and others are championing legislation. But as survivors and/or advocates, we know more must be done. We envision these crucial reforms in a three-pronged approach:

First, we must improve prevention efforts. To end this epidemic, schools need to focus on stopping assaults before they happen. It is clear from our experiences that many students hold dangerous misconceptions about consent. Students need ongoing support and education, with a focus on bystander prevention, peer-to-peer consent workshops and training on resources and reporting processes for survivors. We also need additional investment in campus campaigns. Right now, the onus is too often on students to keep themselves safe and implement important awareness programs. Instead, awareness efforts should receive full support and attention from faculty, staff and school administration across all departments.

Next, schools must adequately fund important resources for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Right now, many students who want to report assault face confusing systems, having to tell their stories multiple times to staff already burdened with large caseloads -- all of which could be improved with increased funding. Schools should prioritize the needs of survivors by fully funding mental health programs and clarifying reporting processes. Simple measures to increase the transparency of how to report a sexual assault are critical so students know they are going to be supported, not cross-examined.

Finally, universities need to hold themselves accountable, and if universities fail to do that, they need to be held accountable by lawmakers. Most colleges are currently not in compliance with the laws on the books designed to prevent sexual assault. If schools are in compliance, the school's approach tends to favor liability management over student safety. Schools should have rape shield statutes to protect assault survivors from character assassination, which sadly often occurs in hearings. Survivors should also be given options -- either an open hearing or a closed-door model -- and given adequate time to decide which path is best for their individual scenario. Finally, schools should publicly and explicitly demonstrate how they are in compliance with the laws designed to end sexual assault and protect survivors. If they fail to do that, we need our lawmakers to step up and find new ways to put pressure on schools to comply.

As student advocates who have fought to improve the lives of other students on our campuses, we know how powerful it can be to speak out on the issues that have touched us. Nearly 200,000 young women are going to graduate from college this year having been raped or as a survivor of an attempted rape. That is shameful and an absolutely unacceptable statistic. Everyone -- students, parents, administrators and elected leaders -- should be up in arms and demanding change. This National Women's Health Week, join us. Demand change. Demand an end to university sexual assault.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with National Women's Health Week, May 12-18. Read all posts in the series here. To learn more, please visit WomensHealth.gov.

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