Janel Dyan

Women Crushing It Wednesday

#WCIW: Mariska Hargitay

Passionate Advocate. Fighter. Activist.

Mariska Hargitay is a powerhouse for many reasons, but at the top of that list must be her most recent project. Hargitay recently partnered with HBO to produce the documentary I Am Evidence, which was released just this past Monday night.

The film is a scathing, unflinching expose of the unimaginable, negligent, and dare we say heinous way the United States justice system deals with rape kits. The most staggering statistic from the documentary is that around 400,000 rape kits collected by law enforcement in the US have not been tested. These kits, which are completed at a hospital after an alleged rape, include DNA swabs and other evidence that can, and should, be used in criminal investigations and trials.

That nearly a half million of them sit untested in evidence lockers, back rooms, and warehouses throughout the country is not only astounding, it is infuriating. The story of how Hargitay came to take on this unacceptable state of affairs is unusual: through television.

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Hargitay, who is best known for playing Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, began receiving hundreds, then thousands of letters when she took on the role nearly twenty years ago. On the show, her character investigates sexual offences in the NYC area with both passion and compassion.

The character struck a major chord with audiences, and while it's not unusual for actors to receive fan mail, the letters that Hargitay received were different. They were written by victims of sex crimes, telling their stories to someone they felt they could trust. Some told stories of sexual assaults that were prosecuted, some told of assaults that were never reported, and others about assaults that were reported but not taken seriously.

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Hargitay was overwhelmed. She decided to educate herself on the actual state of sex crime justice in the US, and what she found baffled and enraged her. She discovered that cases of sexual assault were rarely reported, because all too often the victims were either dismissed entirely or themselves became the subject of the investigation. They were torn apart, not just by defense attorneys but by school officials, police officers, and prosecutors. Often they were blamed for their own attacks. Hargitay was determined to make a difference and to bring awareness to these issues.

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In 2004, she launched the Joyful Heart Foundation, which serves to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever. The Foundation provides support, education, and even retreats for survivors and their families. They've raised over $32 million since starting, and leveraged a further $115 million in donated goods to fund services for over 18,500 survivors. They've also lobbied courts in every state, and Hargitay herself testified before a House judiciary meeting in 2010 in support of changeon behalf of survivors.

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Her testimony drew the attention of Kym Worthy, a Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor who had discovered over 11,000 untested rape kits in Detroit alone. Worthy contacted Hargitay and the two joined forces to tackle an enormous problem.

“I knew one thing after I heard her testify,” Worthy told Vanity Fair. “That I wanted to work with her—to get her to Detroit to help us with our issues. And she came, and it really jumpstarted what we were able to do in the legislature, in the courtroom, helping me bid for money, getting more money for my funding source, it came together.”

When Hargitay became aware of the sheer number of untested kits, not just in Detroit but everywhere, she was “mad, shocked, devastated, and simply outraged. I thought my head was going to explode. I couldn’t believe that people weren’t talking about it, that people didn’t know. . . . The fact that these kits weren’t tested means, to me, that [the authorities] are saying that women are not of value. We’d open the files and see that [authorities literally describe] the victims that were knocking on their door for help, ‘bitches, whores, prostitutes,’ and they just didn’t care. . . . They were making decisions about not believing them and they were calling them names and they were victimizing them even further. I completely understood why [these victims] had no faith in the criminal justice system.”

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Together, Hargitay, Worthy, and the Joyful Heart Foundation founded www.endthebacklog.org. The goal of the organization is to advocate for and fund the testing of every single rape kit in the US. In Detroit alone, processing the backlog has resulted in identifying over 850 serial rapists with  135 convictions. And that’s just one city in America.

While the statistics are overwhelming and the prospects initially seem grim, Hargitay, Worthy, and the Foundation are slowly but surely making a difference. I Am Evidence is a powerful look into the problem, but also into the strength of the survivors and the passionate individuals who are working tirelessly to end that problem. The goal of testing every backlogged kit and ending the violence seems lofty, but every success is a major victory for the life of a survivor, and for preventing future crimes.

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For her passionate advocacy, her boundless fight, and her indefatigable activism, Mariska Hargitay is this week’s #WCIW. Please visit www.joyfulheartfoundation.org to learn more about efforts on behalf of the victims, and watch I Am Evidence now streaming on HBO.

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