I gave this speech on 28 February 2002 at the Alabama capitol building in Montgomery, as part of a press conference held by Amnesty International USA and Alabama state Representative Barbara Boyd (D-Anniston), in support of Boyd’s House Bill 136, which outlawed sexual conduct and harassment by guards in Alabama prisons.
In a society where men sexually assault one out of every five women, where rape and the threat of rape keep women in a state of fear, what can we do to defend the fundamental human rights of women and girls?
What can we do today, for women and girls who do not have time to wait for things to be fixed? What can we do right now for women’s human rights in Alabama?
Right now, the Alabama legislature has a choice to make. Right now, Alabama is one of only four states where there is no law protecting prison inmates from custodial sexual misconduct. Right now, there are over 1,700 female inmates in Alabama prisons. Most of them are guarded by male corrections officers in violation of international correctional standards. Because there are no legal protections against custodial sexual misconduct, women in Alabama prisons have been subjected to sexual extortion, rape, and other abuse by members of the correctional staff to whom they are entrusted.
Rape is a crime of power. It happens when the rapist wants power over his victim, and uses power to force sex. More than any other institution, the prison is a place in which the agents of the state are entrusted with power over other people. With that power must come responsibility.
Most people who are entrusted with this power do not abuse it. Most men would never even consider committing a sexual assault. But we must create an environment in which those who do abuse their power are held responsible. Without legal protections against custodial sexual misconduct, those few who do choose to abuse their power over inmates inflict suffering on their victims that can only be described as a form of torture.
Young people, students such as myself, have been taking the initiative all across Alabama to work against sexual violence. We have volunteered to support rape crisis centers and peer education groups to raise awareness and support the survivors of sexual violence. Through student government and activist groups, we have put our energies into improving safety on our own campuses. And now it is time for the legislature to take up the struggle with us. Last month, Representative Barbara Boyd introduced House Bill 136, which would finally enforce legal accountability for officers who abuse their power over inmates through sexual violence. We are one of only four states without such a law. For Alabama to fully protect the human rights of women, the legislature must approve this bill, as one more step in the fight against sexual violence, one more step in the struggle for women’s fundamental human rights.