Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Case Already a Victory for U.S. Legal System

New York law enforcement's swift arrest of a powerful man on the word of an immigrant hotel housekeeper—acknowledging that rape is real instead of shaming the alleged victim—should make Americans proud, says women's-rights lawyer Cheryl Thomas.

The world is watching how the United States legal system treats Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the immigrant woman who accused him of rape. (Emmanuel Dunand, Pool / AP Photo)

As far as we know, the immigrant woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape has not been ignored, harassed, or banished from her community. Nor has she been accused of prostitution or dishonoring her family, as she might be in many parts of the world.

Rather, New York law-enforcement officials have carefully documented and followed up on the hotel housekeeper’s allegations of violent sexual assault. They pursued a massively powerful man onto an airplane and arrested him based on her statement alone, with no witnesses to corroborate her story. A female judge denied bail and the accused was detained, and prosecutors prepared a complaint.

Compared with what happens in much of the world, our legal system’s response, acknowledging that rape is real criminal behavior instead of shaming or blaming the victim or completely dismissing her claims, is revolutionary. I am deeply proud of it.

As a women’s human-rights lawyer who has worked for 20 years with partners in many countries to reform laws on violence against women, I know that women who make claims of sexual assault are, more likely than not, humiliated and disregarded by legal officials in many, if not most, countries.

I returned from a meeting last week in Istanbul, where 33 women and men from 15 countries gathered to assess whether recently enacted laws on violence against women are effective. Some of these heroic advocates have been working for many years just to pass laws with basic protections for victims of violence. Resisting such laws, government leaders frequently do not acknowledge a woman’s right to be free from violence.

This week New York has shown the world that justice systems can work for rape victims.

Recently, the United Nations reported that 102 countries still have no legal provisions addressing domestic violence. While sexual assault may technically be a crime in many countries, laws are weak, and effective prosecution of rapists is rare. Public prosecutors have no responsibility to pursue charges under these laws. At the meeting in Istanbul, Russian women stated that 4,790 cases of rape and attempted rape were reported in 2009, but only 10 percent of rape victims ever report the crime. They know their allegations will not be investigated. Another report described the Turkish legal system’s alarming treatment of victims of violence. In one story, a young woman who had been raped and assaulted by her husband for years was advised by police to reconcile with him after she was hospitalized with a broken arm and skull.

Our legal system in the U.S. is far from perfect in its response to violence against women. Serious problems with laws, policies, and practices persist and can compromise victim safety and offender accountability. Rape remains a vastly unreported crime in the U.S., and there are serious gaps in enforcement of our laws that prohibit it.

But this week New York has shown the world that justice systems can work for rape victims. Our uniquely strong laws, which clearly criminalize sexual assault, were enforced. These laws are decades old and widely supported, and are the result of years of advocacy work by activists and legal officials who believe in a woman’s right to be free from violence. In its swift and certain response, our legal system was a beacon of hope for many throughout the world. Congratulations and thank you, New York.