By Karly Stilling
Trigger warning: this article contains graphic details of serious sexual and physical assault.
The stories below are based on the reporting of others and give only brief snapshots of what are mostly incredibly complex and difficult cases. Please click on the links at the bottom of the article to learn more.
Berkeley, California, 1978
Fifteen-year-old Mary Vincent is hitchhiking from Las Vegas to California when she’s picked up near Berkeley by a man driving a van.
It’s a long drive and eventually Mary falls asleep. When she wakes up, she realises the van’s going in the wrong direction—they’re headed back towards Vegas. Mary tells the man to turn around, and he does. He’s just gotten lost, he tells her. When he stops to go to the bathroom a while later, Mary notices that her shoelace is untied, so she gets out of the car to tie it up. That’s when something hits her in the head from behind.
It’s the driver. He hits her again, hits her until she falls down.
Then he forces his penis into her mouth. He drags her into the van. He rapes her. He ties her up, drives around for a while. He stops, forces her to drink alcohol, rapes her again. And again. And again.
Until finally, blessedly, she passes out.
When she wakes up, the nightmare isn’t over. The man makes her lie down on the side of the road, then he takes a hatchet and chops off her right arm. Then he chops off her left. He takes her, naked and bloody, and shoves her down an embankment into a culvert, where he leaves her to die.
Six months later—after Mary has stumbled three miles to get out of that canyon, after she has found her way to the freeway, after one car has passed her without stopping, after the next finally stops and calls an ambulance, after she gives such a clear description of her attacker to police that they immediately know who he is, after her long recovery and getting used to her new prosthetic arms, after all of that—
She faces her attacker, Lawrence Singleton, in court. She describes her ordeal in such harrowing detail that when it comes time for the judge to announce the sentence, he says that if he had the power he would send Singleton to prison for the rest of his natural life.
But he doesn’t have the power, so instead he sentences him to the maximum allowed by law at the time: fourteen years.
Singleton is paroled after only eight years. No community will accept him, so he serves out his parole in a caravan on the grounds of San Quentin. After one year, he’s free.
Less than ten years later, he attacks another woman. This time it’s a mother of three. This time she doesn’t survive. This time Singleton is sentenced to death.
Manhattan, New York,1993
Natasha Alexenko is fumbling with her keys outside her apartment one August day when she feels a gun press into her back.
If you don’t do everything I say I’ll blow your brains out.
Her assailant leads her to an empty stairwell, where he rapes her. After it’s over, she goes to the hospital where she undergoes an invasive exam in order to collect all the evidence left on her body. Her body has become a crime scene.
She’s twenty years old, just starting her adult life. She goes home, tries to get on with it, but she can’t. She moves back to her hometown, begins drinking. She feels guilty because she isn’t able to describe her attacker’s face. She worries she’s responsible for this man being on the loose, most likely attacking other women.
But life goes on.
Ten years later, Natasha gets a call. It’s the police: they’ve finally tested her rape kit. At first, she’s relieved—progress is being made. But then she’s angry. Why has it taken ten years just to process the kit?
It takes four more years to catch the guy. He’s arrested for jaywalking and matched to the DNA left on Natasha’s body after the attack. He’s found guilty of violent assault, including two counts of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse, and is sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison.
Natasha is relieved, but the anger persists. How many rape kits are out there, ready to identify an attacker, lying dormant on police shelves? As it turns out, in America the answer is a lot.
California has 13,615 untested rape kits. Florida has 13,435. Alaska has 2,568. New York is among the states who have enacted sweeping reforms—they now only have 1,981—but at the time of Natasha’s rape, they had over 17,000 untested kits.
That’s a lot.
Lynnwood, Washington, 2008
Eighteen-year-old Marie Adler is woken up by a masked intruder in her ground-floor apartment. He has a knife.
He ties her up, rapes her, takes her picture.
When he leaves, she cuts herself free and calls the police.
Her story to investigators is clear—at first. But as they question her over and over, picking apart the details, inconsistencies start to pop up. Did she cut herself free before calling for help, or after?
After a while, Marie suggests the rape may have been a dream. Then, finally, she confesses to making the whole thing up.
FBI figures indicate that the number of rape cased that are determined to be false or unfounded is about 5 percent nationwide. In Lynnwood, where Marie’s rape occurred, the average between 2008 and 2012 was 21.3 percent.
Marie is charged with a gross misdemeanour. Her public defender negotiates a plea deal for mandatory counselling, probation, and a $500 fine, which means she can avoid jail time. Marie takes it.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, another woman is raped under similar circumstances. Then another, and another. Two female detectives, suspecting a serial rapist is at work, find several other similar rapes in neighbouring counties. They find a suspect, and using DNA they manage to get a search warrant. In his house they find evidence from all the rapes, along with photos of his victims.
One of the photos is of a victim they don’t recognise: Marie Adler.
The rapist, Marc O’Leary, pleads guilty to 28 counts of rape and is sentenced to 327.5 years for the rapes in Colorado, plus an additional 68.5 years for the rapes of Marie and another woman in Washington.
Marie is returned her $500.
After everything she’s been through, it doesn’t feel like enough. She feels like she deserves more. She sues the city and settles for $150,000.
It’s enough to start over.
Marie’s story is the subject of the Netflix miniseries Unbelievable, which itself is based on the Pulitzer-prize winning account from ProPublica and The Marshall Project, An Unbelievable Story of Rape.
Surrey, B.C., 2011
Nineteen-year-old Maple Batalia has just finished a study session with her friends. It’s late by the time she starts walking to her car, just after 1am, and the parkade is quiet. Then the silence is shattered by gunshots and Maple collapses.
Police rush to the scene and perform CPR, but they can’t save her. Maple Batalia, who was studying medicine, dies from gunshot wounds.
At first, no one knows what happened. The police won’t say if it was a targeted attack or a random act of violence. They tell the media they’re hoping someone in the community will come forward with information.
Then, just over two months later, they announce that they’ve made an arrest in the case.
Slowly, the story begins to emerge: Maple had recently broken up with her boyfriend because he’d been cheating on her.
He had been a jealous and possessive partner, and his behaviour only escalated after the break up. He wouldn’t stop sending her messages; he sent her thousands in a matter of weeks. He even threatened her friends.
Finally, he waited for her one dark night in a campus parkade. He shot at her five times, hitting her three. Then, he took a knife and stabbed her 11 times before fleeing.
At the trial, he pleads guilty. He’s sentenced to 21 years.
Rural El Salvador, 2016
In 2016, 18-year-old Evelyn Hernandez has bad stomach pains. Thinking it’s a digestive issue, she goes to the outhouse at her family home, where she faints.
Her mother finds her and takes her to the hospital. When doctors examine her, they realise that she’s given birth. Evelyn is in shock: she didn’t even know she was pregnant. Eight months earlier she’d been in a forced sexual relationship with a gang member and had been repeatedly raped. But she’s been bleeding on and off since then, she tells them. She thought she was getting her period.
Investigators don’t believe her. They go to her home and find the body of her baby in the septic tank. They’re convinced that she knew she was pregnant, that she’d aborted the baby.
In El Salvador, abortion under any circumstances is illegal. Evelyn is arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
Her lawyers fight the charge, until she eventually gets a retrial in 2017. This time, the prosecutors ask for a 40 year sentence.
The sentence for violent rape in El Salvador? Six to ten years.
Evelyn wins her new trial and is cleared of the charges, but she is one of the lucky ones. In El Salvador, abortion carries a sentence of two to eight years. If the prosecutors elevate the charge to aggravated homicide, as they did in Evelyn’s case, women can face sentences much longer than that.
Most of them don’t get a retrial.
Feni, Dhaka, 2019
Nineteen-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi is in class at her Muslim school when she’s called into the headmaster’s office. He touches her inappropriately. Repeatedly. But before it can go any further, Nusrat runs out. She goes straight to the police.
Facing shame and recrimination, Nusrat does what most girls in her community are too scared to do: she tells the truth.
An officer films her interview on his mobile phone. Nusrat is crying, they’re telling her it’s no big deal, she is covering her face with her hands.
The headmaster is arrested. People protest his arrest, and Nusrat is blamed.
Eleven days after the assault, despite threats from the community, Nusrat goes to school to sit her exams. Her brother goes with her, but the school won’t let him inside so Nusrat goes in alone.
Once inside, a fellow female student comes up to her and tells Nusrat that a friend of hers is in trouble, that the friend is being beaten up on the roof of the school. On the roof, Nusrat find a group of people in burqas. Her friend isn’t there.
The group surrounds her, demanding that she withdraw the charges against the headmaster. Nusrat refuses. They douse her with kerosene and set her on fire.
Nusrat is rushed to the hospital. In the ambulance, her brother records her on his mobile phone. “The teacher touched me,” she says. “I will fight this crime till my last breath.”
Four days later, Nusrat dies from her burns.
London, UK, 2019
Melania and her girlfriend Chris are on the top deck of a night bus on their way to Camden Town for a night out. A group of young guys start harassing them—not unusual on the night bus.
But then the guys figure out that Melania and Chris are a couple. The harassing ramps up a notch. The guys start making sexual gestures, telling them to kiss. They surround them.
Melania tries to make a joke. Chris, who doesn’t speak English, doesn’t understand what’s happening. She pretends to be sick, hoping the guys will leave the two of them alone.
They don’t. They start throwing coins. Then Chris is in the middle of the bus and the guys are throwing punches.
Melania pulls Chris out and they get away.
They’re both bruised and bloody. Melania thinks her nose is broken, and she’s missing her purse and her phone. They have to go to the hospital for treatment.
All for being female. All for being gay.
Mariam has a good life in Australia. Her parents are separated, but she’s close with her father and her sister. When she’s sixteen, Mariam meets a boy. His name is Khaled. When she turns nineteen, they get married and move into a granny suite at his parent’s place.
Khaled’s family are stricter in their following of Islam than Mariam’s more moderate family, but she doesn’t think too much of it.
Soon, the couple have a daughter. In 2015, they go on an extended family holiday. They go to Malaysia, to Dubai, to Lebanon. They’re supposed to go to Greece next, but instead Khaled suggests they go to Turkey to visit his family. So they do.
While they’re there, Khaled gets word that a cousin is in need of help. He tells Mariam that his cousin has joined ISIS, but now he wants out, so they head to the border to get him. When they get there, they’re ambushed. Mariam and her daughter are held at gunpoint, bundled into trucks. Mariam is terrified, keeps her child close. They drive for hours, finally arriving at a camp.
When she sees the ISIS flag flying over the camp, Mariam finally understands what’s happened: her husband has joined ISIS.
What follows is years of a hellish existence. Mariam has virtually no contact with her father back in Australia. She has another baby, a boy, then Khaled is killed and she’s forced to remarry. She has another child. Then her second husband is killed. They give her a third.
In October 2019, the US withdraws its troops in Syria. Mariam finds herself and her three children in a camp controlled by Kurdish forces. With the geopolitical situation in turmoil, the women are terrified. They don’t know what will happen to them.
Back in Australia, Mariam’s father Kamalle, also a Muslim, has been busy. He’s part of a group of families fighting for the release of women like Mariam. But it’s an uphill battle.
We don’t want people coming back, having the skills in bomb-making and terrorist activity, to commit an atrocity in our country.
Australians don’t want them back in the country.
You want to go out there and have this hatred towards Western society and this ideology—we’re not going to just turn around and say, oh, come on back down to Australia.
On the phone to her father, Mariam cries.
We’re scared. We need help.
Our kids don’t deserve to see this. Please, please, please! Before it’s too late.
I don’t want to be forgotten. I don’t want to be ignored from the world. I don’t want my kids to be ignored from the world.
Please, please, please, please, just save us from here.
Mariam and her kids are one family out of many.
As of now, no one knows what will happen to them.
Every woman, everywhere.
Don’t tell us we’re not at war.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi