Testing Rape Kits: How Feminist Philanthropy Can Help

End the Backlog, a project of the Joyful Heart Foundation, tracks local, state, and national efforts to test rape kits. (Image Credit: End the Backlog)

A massive backlog of untested rape kits has long plagued the criminal justice system and undermined efforts to foreground sexual assault as a major problem worthy of serious investigation. Sexual assault survivors and activists have estimated that around 250,000 rape kits remain untested.

Crucially, addressing the backlog isn’t just a matter of garnering convictions and getting sexual assault perpetrators off the streets though that’s certainly part of it. It’s also about justice for survivors, putting issues that disproportionately affect women at the fore, and achieving some degree of increased safety for women and girls. And feminist philanthropy efforts have a direct role to play in achieving all of these goals.

New efforts from district attorney’s offices across the country to fund rape kit testing have resulted in a number of convictions of rapists and perpetrators of sexual assaults. As reported earlier in March in The New York Times, for example, Maisha Sudbeck, a Tucson woman whose rape evidence kit was ignored for over five years, found closure after a grant from the DA’s office in Manhattan funded investigators’ attempts to clear the backlog. Nathan Loebe, a serial rapist who had sexually assaulted Sudbeck and six other women, was convicted based on the DNA evidence in her kit. Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. dedicated $38 million to clearing the backlog in 2015. Since then, 64 rapists across a number of states have been found and convicted, just like Loebe.

In fact, many of those convicted since the grant’s initiation have been found to be serial perpetrators of sexual assault. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy launched Enough SAID (Enough Sexual Assault In Detroit), a funding initiative to process thousands of rape kits (each of which cost just under $500 to test) after over 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered in a storage area at the Detroit Police Department five years ago.

Organizations like the Michigan Women’s Foundation (now rebranded as Michigan Women Forward) and a number of influential feminist donors have played a major role in testing those kits. The initiative has funded the testing of over 10,000 of those kits, resulting in the identification of over 800 serial rapists in a single county. Moreover, many of these sexual assault survivors are women of color–86 percent, in the case of the Wayne County kits that went untested. Efforts like Enough SAID and End The Backlog are addressing the issue of sexual assault head-on.

Despite these laudable efforts, the backlog remains, serving as a clear reminder of how issues that often affect women are often depoliticized, dismissed, or underfunded. Feminist donors and advocates have been instrumental in funding these initiatives, and continue to serve as leaders in the movement. Sarah Haacke Byrd, the Executive Director of Women Moving Millions, for example, is an expert in getting new legislation passed to test rape kits. At the time of her appointment, she had raised over $169 million to clear the backlog, and had been instrumental in the passage of over 35 laws across 26 states that help to prevent a similar backlog in the future. The rape kit backlog is one problem that feminist donors, activists, and philanthropists can contribute to in order to make an immediate difference on an urgent issue.

What can feminist philanthropists do to address the rape kit backlog in their states? For starters, check out the state-based news on End the Backlog, which helps to identify where and how states are making progress on this issue. Reaching out to your state-based organization working to end gender-based violence is another way to touch base and learn about how this issue is playing out in your community. Donors might also reach out to state-based women’s funds and foundations (check out the Women’s Funding Network for a list of the women’s funds in your area) to discuss ways to team up for advocacy around rape kit testing education and reform.

Author: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a writer with bylines in SELF, The Guardian, The New York Times, VICE, and many others. Follow her work at www.lauradorwart.com.

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