The Chilling Effect

07/29/2011 01:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

The messages kept pouring into my email box on Monday when news that the anonymity of the accuser in People of New York vs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was about to be destroyed. Shock, sadness, anger, fear and outrage were among the reactions from colleagues in New York and beyond who belong to movements that fought hard for decades to keep identities of sex crimes victims out of the press during criminal deliberations.

One of the world's most ignored and misunderstood human rights violations, sexual violence is a global epidemic, inflicted on women and girls of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. The sheer volume of rapes and sexual assault is staggering: in 2008 alone, nearly 204,000 reported rapes or sexual assaults were perpetrated on victims aged 12 and older in the United States. The American Journal of Public Health reported that 400,000 women were raped from 2006 to 2007 in the Democratic Republic of Congo; corrective rapes of lesbians in South Africa are rampant; well over 50% of women in Haiti suffer from rape, and the list goes on in too many corners of the globe. Sexual violence remains a brutal exercise of power, control and destruction in an unequal society.

Coupled with these alarming facts, in any given country, sexual violence continues to be one of the most consistently mishandled crimes. The pervasive obstacles to justice for sexual assault victims and the negative cultural attitudes about sexual violence are so daunting that pressing charges becomes an act of courage. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 60% of rape and sexual assault cases go unreported for reasons that include shame, fear of reprisal, loss of privacy, stigmatization, insensitivity of law enforcement, and victim-blaming. A loss of public anonymity would increase that number. Research also shows that those with a pattern of committing or attempting to commit rape will continue to do so until prosecuted and jailed, a tall order since statistics indicate that overall prosecution rates for rape are among the lowest for any criminal offense, and that only one out of 16 rapists will be incarcerated.

Except for the defendant and his accuser, no one knows what really happened in Sofitel New York's Suite 2806 on May 14. However, gleaning from the character sketches of the accuser in the press and now watching her being irresponsibly sold to the media, the accuser's profile and vulnerability is one that women's rights advocates know well. She was born in a remote village in one of Africa's poorest countries; she was denied basic education and survived female genital mutilation, child marriage, teen motherhood, and widowhood before the age of 20. With a life tampered by sexual violence, exploitation, and poverty, she is, like so many women, struggling at the margins, intent on raising a child with only resolve and love on her side. None of these experiences excuse tampering with the law, but they knit webs of resilience that can lead to "la magouille," a uniquely French term describing the daily hustle required to keep afloat.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office seems to have enough forensic and other evidence to not have dismissed the case to date. While the accuser's credibility issues appear to be steep obstacles for the prosecutors -- and the inexplicable and unprecedented decision to parade an alleged sex crime victim before the media during criminal deliberations may further jeopardize those chances -- it seems relatively easy, in context, to believe the accuser at face value based on reported facts and the worldwide patterns of gender-based violence.

Women's groups are watching the Strauss-Kahn case carefully. At the heels of the NYPD rape case that shockingly led to an acquittal, there could be yet another chilling effect on reporting sex crimes if the case is dismissed. No matter how this case concludes, however, the time is now to develop forward-looking comprehensive policies and procedures that guarantee sex crime victims the full protection of the law, respect, anonymity and an end to indifference and re-victimization. Silence paralyzes, but breaking it must be met with dignity and justice.