The new documentary “I Am Evidence” tells the heartbreaking yet hopeful stories of survivors of rape and brutal sexual assault whose voices went unheard for decades. 

And the woman behind the film  — “Law & Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay — is no stranger to those stories.

The film highlights the fact that across the US, 200,000 rape kits containing DNA samples from victims of rape and sexual assault currently sit, untested, in warehouses. These kits are more than DNA: they are literal pieces of women and men, mostly women. And their existence has been ignored or forgotten for too long.  

These are some of the staggering pieces of information the spotlight HBO documentary, which Hargitay executive produced, divulged to the audience when it premiered at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival in New York Monday night. 

Between 300,000 and 1.3 million women are raped each year in the US. The majority of rapes in the US are unreported, leaving no excuses for those who do report sexual assault not to be given the chance at justice they deserve.

Globally, one in three women experiences sexual violence in her lifetime. These acts of gender-based violence are most often caused by an intimate partner or acquaintance, according to UN Women. 

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The film can be painful to watch. Sexual assault is a topic nobody wants to look directly in the eye. But spreading awareness is also necessary to change the system, and there is hope. That hope can be seen in strength of the women in the film. 

Kim Worthy, featured in the film, is a prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan. Worthy discovered 11,000 untested rape kits in Wayne County, and is now taking action to get each tested. Erika is a survivor of sexual assault-turned-activist, and now considering running for office. 

Each of these women are trailblazers, calling for action and justice on behalf of all survivors.  

Global Citizen spoke with Hargitay via phone to discuss the inspiration for the film, the justice system’s lack of response toward violence against women, and what can be done to fix it.

Where did your interest in this subject come from? Why is it so important?

I started the show in 1999, 18 years ago and read the script. It was so compelling, an amazing script, I knew I wanted to play this character. Shortly after shooting I went to an event in New York, honoring [“Law & Order” executive producer] Dick Wolf, my boss, and after the event I learned about the statistics on domestic violence. Learning the statistics was eye-opening...I didn’t understand, is this is an epidemic in our society? And if so, why is nobody talking about it? 

So it was a perfect fit, and then letters starting coming in. I’d had fan mail before, but all of sudden it was women disclosing their stories, many for the first time. I was shocked being immersed in these issues, and this subject that matters. So that led to the Joyful Heart Foundation. [That] was my answer. 

And then I realized that the show gave me the platform to talk about these issues. It was a gift to speak about it in a way that was palatable to society. Before, [these issues] and the shame and stigma attached were swept under the rug...but now people were standing around the water cooler talking about it, after watching the show...and I’d been given this gift and I wanted to transform society’s response. 

That’s the mission statement of the Joyful Heart Foundation: to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, to support survivors’ healing, and to end this violence forever. 

When did you learn about the massive backlog of rape-kits in the US? 

In 2004 I started the foundation, and in 2009 I learned about the backlog of rape kits in Los Angeles. I was in disbelief. I could not stomach what was was going on. And in Los Angeles! I’m an LA girl at heart, that’s where I’m from, and I just couldn’t download how a woman comes forward, after the most traumatic thing have a rape kit sit on a shelf. I just could not comprehend. I mean talk about not mattering, talk about being discarded, and abused, it was too much for anyone to bear. So once we learned about the backlog, we made this our top advocacy priority. We started the End the Backlog initiative because it’s a perfect microcosm of how sexual assault victims do not matter. Testing kits sends a message: it matters. And not testing says it doesn’t matter. 

“If you’ve got stacks of physical evidence of a crime, and you’re not doing everything you can with the evidence, then you must be making a decision that this isn’t a very serious crime,” notes Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

- "Is Rape Serious,Nicholas Kristof, April 29, 2009

How did that knowledge transition into the film, “I Am Evidence?” 

I could watch documentaries all day long, I love documentaries, and we [at the foundation] needed our “Waiting for Superman” moment. So for me that was what we wanted to share: this painful and shocking dirty little secret. 

We don’t even know how many there are. The two most shocking things were the serial aspect of rape, and that most rape is acquaintance rape, that’s the majority of what happens [in the US.] 

As painful as the movie is and as hard as these realizations are, the good news and the hope is that we have a plan. We intend to change this, and we can change it. 

My foundation has a plan. We can end this by 2020. Obviously we need to change this, we need to get legislation changed in all 50 states. 

Was there anything that changed during the process of making the film? 

Oh yes! We pitched the idea to HBO and this is the story we wanted to tell. We knew we wanted to tell a survivor-centric story but there’s so much history...We wanted to tell so many things, the history of the backlog, and all the people who came before us. 

We went out and interviewed these 14 incredible brave survivors. And then we had to weave it all together. We had to figure out, ‘How do we tell this incredible telling story?’ And we only had 90 minutes. 

But the movie sort of writes itself. One story leads to another, like the connection between Amberly and Helena. One thing we have learned is that there is so much content, so we know we’re not done...Our hope is to change society. 

It's a national secret swept under the carpet and we’re bringing that to light. The strength and tenacity of the women [involved] has been deeply inspiring. It's a large group of women and to see them come together and create this is one of the most inspiring things I've ever done, but there are emotional costs. So we’ll gather strength and onwards we’ll go. 

Do you think there is a lack of urgency around addressing the issue of gender-based violence on a global level?  

Of course. Gender based violence has been going on for a long time. The fact is that for the most part these shelved kits represent women’s lives. And the fact is that in this country, women are not valued. The roots of violence against women —  the misogyny that persists in our society —  are the same roots behind the rape kit backlog. We can end the rape kit backlog through legislative reform but until we value women and girls in our society, gender based violence will continue.

This is why we need women’s voices. We talk about turning up the volume on these issues, and that’s what we’re doing. 

What can average people do to help? 

We all have a voice in this and we need women's voices. We need women to speak and realize that their voice matters. A lot of people are asking what they can do, they can go to People can donate, we have a lot of kits to test, and that requires money. 

I think things are changing and by realizing this conversation matters and speaking up we can make change happen. You can actually pick up the phone, call your legislators, and we can change it. 

The documentary will be available on HBO in 2018. To learn more about the rape kit backlog go here and what you can do go here. I Am Evidence is screening at the TriBeCa Film Festival through April 29.


Demand Equity

‘I Am Evidence’ Puts Staggering Rape Kit Backlog in the Spotlight

By Meghan Werft