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U.S. Military is Still a Hostile Environment for Women

by Shelby Quast, Director, Equality Now, Americas
Wednesday, 11 May 2016 16:31 GMT

Credit: Ruth Moore, survivor of military sexual assault.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women in the United States may soon be required to register for the military draft following a vote last month by the House of Representatives to amend the National Defense Authorization Act. This is part of continued efforts to provide more opportunities to women in the military, following last year’s decision to open all combat roles to women.

Women are already an integral part of the U.S. military and have served their country since the American Revolution. They make up more than 14% of the U.S. Armed Services and more than 280,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent developments mean that even more women are likely to take part in the future.

However, the military is often a dangerous place to be a woman. Despite claims of “zero tolerance”, sexual assault, harassment and discrimination are widespread and exacerbated by policies and practices that “victim-blame” and often fail to penalize perpetrators.

A 2014 Department of Defense commissioned study reports that 116,600 service members were sexually harassed in 2014 — 22 percent of women and 7 percent of men. Over 20,000 people were sexually assaulted and more than double this number experienced gender discrimination. These attacks are not only taking place in war zones. There were 91 reports of sexual assault in the Military Academies too last year.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, ending sexual assault is clearly not “mission critical” within the U.S. Military. A panel of psychologists, researchers and defense officials at a recent Service Women Action Network (SWAN) event on military sexual assault, harassment and hazing, had hoped that the meeting would draw commanders integral to leading a cultural change. However, despite being invited to an event that was held across from the Pentagon, not a single commander attended.

While it is clear that sexual assault itself is not effectively addressed in the military, women are not able to access justice either when something does happen. Only 1% of sexual assaults result in the conviction of the perpetrator. This is mainly due to the many obstacles that rape survivors face including being able to report the crime, getting a thorough and impartial investigation, and seeing their assailant face appropriate charges and punishment. 

Instead of an independent party, an officer within the perpetrator’s chain-of-command investigates military sexual assault complaints and is given an enormous amount of discretion to do so. Commanders have an incentive to downplay sexual assaults happening within their chain-of-command, as these crimes reflect poorly on the unit. And, unlike civilians, survivors of sexual violence in the U.S. military cannot hold their employer accountable in regular courts for failing to protect them from sexual assault or harassment.

It is also much less likely for women in the military to report sexual assault to their commanders out of fear of retaliation. The 2015 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, released last Friday, shows that 6,000 assaults were reported – a high number, but a relatively small percentage of the total.

Clearly, there are grave concerns relating to how military sexual assault is handled at the moment. A 2013 report by the Department Of Defense Inspector General uncovered serious failures. Out of 501 investigations, 418 had “deficiencies” which compromised the victim’s chance of obtaining justice, and, overall, 399 of these cases had interview and post-interview deficiencies. 

Last month, an Associated Press investigation confirmed this when it found that the U.S. military used “inaccurate or vague information” to convince Congress not to pass a law which would give more power to civilian courts to handle military cases – and that it used misleading or incomplete information in about 93 sexual assault cases.

The bill in question, supported by Equality Now and our partner, SWAN, was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2013. It has died twice on the Senate floor. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have recently taken measures to reform their military justice systems, so that commanders do not wield undue influence over sexual assault cases. It is vital that the U.S. follows suit and protects all of those who bravely serve our country.