President Barack Obama speaks during an event for the Council on Women and Girls at the White House in Washington Jan. 22, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama admin: Freedom from sexual assault a basic human right

Updated

Americans have the capacity to end sexual violence, support victims who survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice, President Obama said from the White House on Wednesday afternoon.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with top Cabinet members on the heels of the publication of a new report showing one in five college women, or 22 million, have been victims of sexual violence. The president then signed a new memorandum that established the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault. 

Andrea Mitchell Reports, 1/22/14, 2:02 PM ET

New effort to stop college sexual assaults

Valerie Jarrett shares details about President Obama’s initiative to combat sexual assaults, particularly on college campuses.
“This is not an abstract problem that goes on in other families or other communities,” he said. “It affects every one of us. It’s about all of us: our moms, our wives, our sisters, our daughters, our sons.”

According to the report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” almost half of the women survivors were raped before the age of 18. More than a third of those who were raped as minors were also assaulted as adults, the analysis found.

Most women victims know their perpetrators, who are 98% men, according to the report.

“Freedom from sexual assault is a basic human right. No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman for any reason, for any reason, other than self-defense,” Biden said prior to Obama’s remarks.

But men are also victims. More than one-quarter of men survivors were raped before they were 10 years old. And 1 in 71 men, or about 1.6 million, have been victims of sexual violence during their lives. Additionally, 93% of men survivors also report their assailants are of the same gender.

The White House Council on Women and Girls compiled the report and released it to the public on Wednesday to advocate for change in social norms, improve criminal justice response, and protect students from sexual abuse. Police sometimes do not arrest or prosecute alleged rape assailants because of various factors, including bias following beliefs that some victims falsely claim abuse, the authors argue.

“For me this really demonstrates that President Obama understands it is a complex issue that needs to be addressed simultaneously on many fronts, both in education but also within our case-services programs,” Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, told msnbc.

Rider-Milkovich said the report’s findings reinforce longstanding research that in the past overwhelmingly indicated the vulnerability of college-aged women to sexual violence.

“I think it’s really important for colleges and universities to bring a comprehensive, universal approach not only to have robust and effective response protocols and crisis-support for victims, but also for prevention,” she said.

Obama last month gave military leaders a year to conduct a comprehensive review of the establishment’s sexual assault response and prevention programs after several high-profile military cases drew public scrutiny throughout 2013. He ordered Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to submit their findings this year by Dec. 1.

Recorded assaults within the armed forces increased by more than 50% last year. There were more than 5,000 reported incidents between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013.

Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 under the leadership of then-senator Joe Biden, thus recognizing the severity of attacks against women and the need for a national strategy. Last March the president signed the third re-authorization of the act to include federal protections to combat assault for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, as well as Native Americans and immigrants. It also imposed new obligations on colleges and universities to address and prevent sexual violence.

In 2010, Obama ordered all federal agencies to prioritize the prevention of domestic and sexual violence. He met with members of several of those groups on Wednesday.

Victims of abuse often suffer from depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain, according to the report. 

“We have the power to do something about it. As a government, as a nation, we have the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice,” Obama said on Wednesday. “We have to keep reaching out to people who are suffering in the shadows.”

Higher rates of reporting assaults by student victims can reveal that they trust and have confidence in an institution’s ability to deal with the situation, Rider-Milkovich said. Bringing the issue to the forefront of national conversations can create an environment where survivors are more comfortable speaking out against their perpetrators.

“I think that college campuses nationally will benefit,” Rider-Milkovich added, “from having more guidance and more resources available to help us do the most effective work possible.”

NewsNation with Tamron Hall, 1/22/14, 4:13 PM ET

President Obama takes on college sex assaults

President Obama signed a memorandum to create a sexual assault “task force” that would help curb assaults on college campuses.

Obama admin: Freedom from sexual assault a basic human right

Updated