Last week, a jury convicted former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw of serial rape. His 13 victims ranged in age from 17 to 57. Prosecutors argued that the former police officer used his badge to target African-American women in lower-income, impoverished areas of the city. He specifically targeted vulnerable and marginalized women.
I was in Kenya working with my medical and legal colleagues when I heard the news. In areas of the world where there has been conflict or unrest, my colleagues and I teach other doctors, nurses, police officers, attorneys, and judges how to collect, document, and evaluate forensic evidence of sexual violence. Our main objective is to secure justice for survivors and end impunity for sexual violence.
Over the past 10 years, I have evaluated and cared for many women, men, and children who have suffered from rape and other forms of sexual assault. Though many factors influence how survivors recover, justice is hugely important to their recovery.
Sexual violence isn’t only a human rights violation. It’s an international public health problem resulting in a significant medical and mental health burden for victims, families, communities, and society. Victims can suffer from physical injuries, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, chronic pain, pregnancy, and mental health complications like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Sexual violence can also result in severe social and economic consequences for survivors and their families.
Survivors deserve the most effective investigations and prosecutions, and health care professionals need to play a role in this process. By providing objective forensic evidence, doctors and other health professionals can help secure justice and medical and mental health support for survivors, deter future crimes, and promote societal intolerance for sexual violence.
Justice for survivors extends beyond the conviction of perpetrators. Survivors also deserve an efficient trial process free of corruption, attention to the crime and not the survivor’s personal history, and the elimination of barriers to justice and care. In the Oklahoma City case, Holtzclaw assaulted multiple women while he was actually under investigation – suggesting that the justice system failed to protect many of his victims from being assaulted in the first place. In conflict zones, when governments fail to protect people from sexual violence, reparations are made to survivors. Perhaps similar reparations are needed in this case.
Equally important to securing justice is the acknowledgement that sexual violence occurs because of abuses of power. Sexual violence isn’t just about sex. Justice requires that we dismantle pathological systems of domination – like sexism, racism, and classism – that lead to sexual assault and other forms of violence. After all, isn’t an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure?