10/10/2014 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

What We Can Learn From Survivors of Sexual Assault

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Courage is an aspect of the human condition that has intrigued me for a long time. The ways it is built, the ways it is lost and then found again, and how it is both so common to human experience, but also somehow miraculously sacred.

The most courageous person I have spoken to in the past few weeks is Lilly, a 22-year-old survivor of sexual assault. Lilly and I met on September 19th at the White House. That day, a group of individuals gathered for the launch of the "It's On Us" campaign. The campaign addresses the issue of campus sexual assault in a multi-pronged way with the different elements laid out on the website A corresponding series of actions are set to take place on campuses across the country.

The beauty inside the White House is captivating -- art, ornamentation and the history that has unfolded within its walls that volumes of books cannot adequately contain. But what added to the beauty of this day was being surrounded by so many committed individuals. Men and women, young and old, from various fields were all there in solidarity with survivors and gathered together to ensure that the plague of sexual assault, and specifically on college campuses, is addressed and halted.

Lilly, who was to introduce the Vice-President, came onto the stage with the composure of a queen and narrated her harrowing story of being raped during her freshman year of college. She then gracefully shared how she rebuilt her life. You could hear a pin drop in the room. This story then quickly took me back a few years ago to my graduate school research and the stories I heard, over many hours, of women who had been imprisoned and tortured, and many who lost loved ones in Iran, for their membership in the Bahá'í Faith. I witnessed how the worst of human ability to inflict cruelty was faced with ineffable courage, the same courage that Lilly also displayed that day. I have a self-described obsession with this kind of courage. How do people not give up in the face of these experiences? What pushes them to keep going?

I left the White House asking myself: How do we as a society change the way we portray both women and men? How do we move away from an understanding of human nature that assumes us all to be greedy, animalistic, self-centered to understand that violence is not definitive of our nature as human beings? President Obama spoke on this issue in his address as well, stating, "From sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society does not sufficiently value women," and he went on to say, "We still don't condemn sexual assault as loudly as we should."

As was clear at the event, and from the time I have spent doing gender equality advocacy, this is everyone's issue. Women and girls are harmed by the rampant violence and the structural and societal injustices that they face; as are men and boys, who also experience violence, marginalization and abuse. No one is immune from the harm that inequity causes, but the good news is that as our societies become more just, everyone benefits.

My own personal experience of higher education was invaluable, marked by highs and lows, by new friendships, disappointments and pushing myself harder academically than I ever thought was possible. Tragically, for one in five women, and for many men as well, the focus shifts from the pursuit of academic excellence to how to rebuild one's life after an experience of sexual assault.

Landmark legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act, Title IX and The Cleary Act has provided tremendous social, as well as psychological, safeguards for our society in creating greater gender equity. These tools are as valuable as ever, and what is most hopeful is that now, in addition to the laws, there is a groundswell of individuals, colleges, companies, branches of government, celebrities and athletes echoing the need for protection and equity in our society.

I hope that this groundswell will continue to grow and gain momentum, and we will get to know the Lilly's of the world not simply as survivors of sexual assault but rather as friends, classmates, and fellow citizens.