In August 2016, Wagatwe Wanjuki live streamed herself burning her once-loved Tufts University sweatshirt on Facebook Live. She held up the shirt bearing the name of her former college, one she bought in high school when she was accepted to Tufts. “I was very proud to claim Tufts as my school and my alma mater,” Wanjuki said before setting the sweatshirt ablaze. But Tufts failed Wanjuki, who reported that a fellow student she was in a relationship with raped her multiple times in 2008. The school opted not to investigate the crime; Wagatwe was expelled in 2009 due to poor grades, which she attributes to the trauma she was experiencing as a survivor. She was less than a year from her scheduled graduation. “My confidence was shot,” Wanjuki told The Huffington Post. “Tufts was saying I was too stupid to stay there. A big part of my identity was that I was always a good student.”
It is reported that one out of five women will be sexually assaulted while attending college in America, but universities often fail to act or mishandle cases, when they are even reported. According to the US Bureau of Justice, only 7% of campus rapes are reported to school officials and 4% are reported to law enforcement; students say they opt not to report because they fear ridicule, not being believed, lack of confidentiality, or that no action will be taken on their behalf.
Wanjuki made waves in 2014 when she felt compelled to respond to a Washington Post column written by George Will that suggested the campus rape epidemic was being exaggerated and that women may be lying about their assaults, as survivors receive “coveted status that confers privilege.” Enraged, she sent out tweets saying “Where’s my survivor privilege? Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans used to attend a school that didn’t care I was raped,” and “The #survivorprivilege of being too scared to leave my dorm room for fear of running into my perp.” The #survivorprivilege hashtag took off and Will’s column came under heavy criticism. “There is nothing to gain by being raped, and there is no privilege to coming forward,” Wanjuki told Mic. “In fact, many survivors lose more after they report due to backlash thanks to our victim-blaming culture.”
After her assault, Wagatwe began to act on behalf of other survivors, calling for reform alongside the national group Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) and helped organize campus demonstrations demanding reform. She and fellow rape survivor/activist Kamilah Willingham, who was assaulted as a student at Harvard Law School, started the Just Say Sorry campaign in an attempt to get colleges and universities to offer formal apologies when they fail students and mishandle on-campus sexual assault cases.
The campaign is part of a larger organization the women have since founded, called Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC) with the goal of stopping sexual violence before it happens. Their website proclaims, “We believe that we can only stop gendered violence by focusing on changing the institutions and beliefs that enable and perpetuate sexual violence. Through the use of strategic education and advocacy, SERC aims to create a world in which organizations like ours are obsolete.” Willingham says, “We want institutional accountability to be the norm, not the exception.”
Since she began to speak out, Wanjuki has appeared in The Hunting Ground, a documentary film about sexual assault on college campuses, and has joined the board of directors for Know Your IX. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding. It addresses sexual harassment, sexual violence, or gender-based discrimination that may deny anyone access to educational opportunities or benefits. Know Your IX is a youth- and survivor-led project that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools. Title IX was bolstered under the Obama administration, which formed a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The current administration has announced plans to roll back federal guidance on Title IX—though no action has yet been taken.
In an incident unrelated to Wanjuki’s, Tufts University was found in violation of Title IX in 2014 for a failure to address student complaints of sexual assault in a “prompt and equitable” way. Shortly thereafter, the university released an updated sexual misconduct policy aimed at addressing these findings. Wagatwe told Mic that she saw this as a victory because “the school that wronged me was finally told that it wasn’t doing enough to help survivors.”
She remains active in her Just Say Sorry campaign and hopes increased focus on campus sexual violence will make campuses safer and help others to come forward. She also wants to increase awareness of violence toward marginalized survivors, like trans, queer, gender non-conforming individuals, and people of color. Manjuki believes that apologies validate the experiences of victims of violence. She told Salon, “Apologizing is a meaningful statement. It is a public declaration saying that we acknowledge that this thing that happened to you is wrong and we’re sorry. It’s a really valuable tool for survivors because at the end of the day what survivors want is to be recognized. And they want to have the community say that what happened to them is wrong so they’re no longer carrying the shame on themselves, which is completely unfair.
Wanjuki told MSNBC, “I hope that women of the next generation will be able to attend school under the leadership of administrators who won’t see sexual assault as a public relations issue, but rather a safety issue they can address. And I really hope that survivors of all identities of color, queer, low-income, with disabilities, trans, gender nonconforming, from community college, in relationships, etc.—will find it easier have their stories heard.”
For more information on Wagatwe Wanjuki, SERC, and their goals and strategies, visit eradicaterape.org.
Image Source: Wagatwe.com
Thank you for bringing up such a sensitive topic so articulately. I truly admire the way that you highlight other women artists and activists rather than just talking about your own brand.
Thank you for helping to shine light into all of the dark corners.