“What were you wearing?” This is a question often heard in two settings but entirely different contexts. One at a Fashion Week, where it is celebrated, and another, asked to a rape survivor, where it is used for shaming. That’s the concept Amanda Nguyễn, CEO and founder of Rise, a non-governmental civil rights organization, had when she decided to use NYFW to bring a long-awaited change.
Amanda herself is a rape survivor. Like the billion other survivors, she too was asked, “what were you wearing?” When she regularly heard the same question at Fashion Weeks, she had a lightbulb moment and decided to use it to bring about the change.
“The words ‘What were you wearing?’ or ‘What are you wearing?’ in the fashion context are fun. It’s literally saying, ‘I love the choices that you made.’ But years ago, when I was raped, I had to answer the same question and it was meant to be shameful. It’s victim blaming — it was meant to say, ‘You incurred the violence against you because of the outfit you were wearing.'”Amanda Nguyễn
She wanted to change the traumatic experiences survivors have. Rape trials often take years, with low conviction rates, and, unless a survivor presses charges, rape kits, a sexual assault evidence collection kit, are often destroyed before they are even tested.
Where she was living, the kits were destroyed within six months, even though the statute of limitations was 15 years. So, in order to preserve these kits, she had to apply for an extension, forcing her to go through the same traumatic experience again and again.
This motivated her to start her organization Rise, which helped pass The Survivors’ Bill of Rights which mandates that rape kits are preserved for a state’s maximum statute of limitations, that victims are not charged a fee for getting rape kits and that victims can access results from the rape kit.
During the New York Fashion Week 2021, Rise organized the first-ever Survivor Fashion Show with the help of rape survivors and allies. They reclaimed the outfits they were raped in and dressed in evening gowns, suits, and sneakers, and descended on the Museum of Modern Art. Their motive? To reclaim and rebuke the stigma around “what were you wearing?” and for the UN to recognize rape in peacetime. The evening was studded by survivors, celebrities and diplomats.
Almost one year later in 2022, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously voted to pass a standalone resolution recognising rape in peacetime, and condemning all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
Through her initiatives, she helped recognize rape as a “global health problem of epidemic proportions” as well.
“According to the World Health Organization, 35% of women on earth – 1.3 billion people – are sexual violence survivors, equivalent to the entire populations of North America and Europe, combined. Rape is an epidemic. Sexual violence is a global emergency. It’s time we start treating it like one.”Rise
It took 6 years and the outfits they were raped in, but they changed the UN.