Sexualized violence and harassment of women is
a widespread problem within the U.S. armed services, but according to a government
investigation and testimony from numerous female soldiers who have been raped,
assaulted and harassed by male soldiers, the Pentagon's response has been woefully
The findings come at a time when new
evidence suggests that U.S. military personnel raped and sexually abused
Iraqi women detained at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in
Iraq, leading some women's rights advocates to conclude that military culture
devalues and dehumanizes women no matter what culture they are from.
"There are definitely connections between the sexual assault in Abu Ghraib
and the abuse against women" in the military, Kate Summers, director of services
for the Miles Foundation, an advocacy group for military women who have been
assaulted by fellow soldiers, told Salon.com.
Summers says the military needs to adopt serious reforms now in order to protect
female soldiers from assault and abuse. Other critics of the military go further,
suggesting that sexism is so deeply embedded in the institution that no amount
of reform could ever make the military a safe place for women.
Activists from both camps say new revelations about assaults against female
soldiers serving in the Middle East, as well as the Pentagon's lackluster response
are, sadly, just the latest episodes in a long history of offenses against women
traceable to the military.
In the U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) theatre of operation, which includes
Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers reported 112 incidents of rape, assault
and other forms of sexual misconduct during an 18-month period ending in February
2004, according to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon also acknowledges
that more than 1,000 incidents of sexual misconduct throughout the military
were reported in 2003 alone. Army statistics also demonstrate that perpetrators
are not likely to be tried and convicted; numbers from 1996 show that out of
440 reported rapes, only 33 resulted in convictions, according to the Memphis
Former Army Captain Jennifer Machmer told the Congressional Caucus for Women's
Issues that she was sexually assaulted two separate times and sexually harassed
once between 2001 and 2003, according to Salon.com. After being raped in Kuwait
in 2003, the last of the two assaults, Machmer reported the incident "within
a half-hour," according to her testimony. Though she followed military protocol
for reporting such an incident, "The aftermath of the reporting has been terrifying,"
According to Salon.com, military authorities questioned whether Machmer's assault
should be considered a rape, she was not provided any immediate counseling and
she had to continue working in the same location as her assailant. Machmer says
she was eventually given a medical discharge, against her wishes, for suffering
from post-traumatic stress disorder. In April, she told the PBS program Newshour
that the soldier who raped her in Kuwait was still in the Army. "He is now serving
at Fort Knox, Kentucky, finishing out his career, while I'm here being raped
out of my career."
Other military women tell similar stories.
Allison DeVant did not receive any counseling after she reported that another
member of the military raped her, according to an interview with the Memphis
Flyer. Instead, DeVant said she was harassed, interrogated, and intimidated
by her commanders. She said she began standing up to them, and in October 2003,
though she had dreams of becoming an officer, she was discharged from the service.
Lately, DeVant has been taking action against the military on the streets of
Memphis. Each week, dressed in a black beret and military uniform and accompanied
by a friend, DeVant holds a protest in front of the Air Force Recruitment Office.
Holding a sign that reads, "In the U.S. military, female soldiers have no protection
against rape," DeVant said she wants to send a message to all women who may
be considering joining the military. As paraphrased by the Memphis Flyer,
the message is: "Rape is common, and if it happens don't let anyone intimidate
you into thinking you've lost your civil rights."
Some high-ranking Pentagon officials defend the military's record on sexual
assault, and have said emphatically that such acts are intolerable. Speaking
to Newshour Admiral Michael McMullen, Vice Chief of Naval Operations
said abuse of female soldiers was "corrosive to the good order and discipline
of our Navy." He added, "I want to be clear on this topic. This is not in my
Navy. It is a crime, and it is unacceptable."
Pressed by anti-violence and women's advocacy groups, the Pentagon in February
2004 established a task force to study the problem of sexualized violence, in
particular the military's response to it. The report opens with the statement,
"The Department of Defense is unequivocal in its commitment to ensure that victims
of sexual assault be protected … and that the perpetrators of such assaults
be held accountable." But it later acknowledges that "existing policies and
programs aimed at preventing sexual assault are inconsistent, principally because
there is no Defense-wide policy requiring them."
Programs that are in place, the report concludes, often do not adequately protect
female soldiers who report sexual assaults partly because the Pentagon has no
clear definitions about what constitutes sexual assault or abuse. In addition,
the military does a poor job gathering and tracking data related to sexual abuse,
and it has not instituted system-wide policies for protecting the privacy of
abuse survivors, according to the report.
Perhaps more startling than the report's conclusions are some of its recommendations.
Rather than call for the immediate implementation of concrete reforms, the task
force is asking the Department of Defense to "allocate time on the agenda" at
a commander's conference to discuss sexual assault; to "convene a summit" of
military and civilian leaders to "develop strategic courses of action"; and
to "establish a single point of accountability" for sexual assault policy matters.
Responding to the recommendations, Kate Summers of the Miles Foundation told
Salon.com, "Meetings and conferences do not constitute a plan of action." The
response from Amnesty International was similar: "While the review was an important
step, years of sweeping this problem under the carpet and systematic silencing
of its victims cannot be erased with yet another report."
Summers and other advocates say the report barely addresses how to implement
major near-term reforms needed to make the military safer for gender-integrated
According to Salon.com, several leading advocates for female soldiers say the
Pentagon should immediately hire a program manager to oversee sexual abuse cases;
start providing victims with advocates and counselors; expedite prosecutions
so that accused attackers are removed from victims' work areas; and establish
a chain of command structure for ensuring victims' privacy.
Stop Family Violence, an advocacy group for abuse survivors, says the military
also needs to deploy sexual assault nurses in the field and provide rape test
kits so evidence can be processed in a timely manner. The group also recommends
that investigative procedures be standardized.
But even if such reforms were implemented, some advocates worry that the military
will not be able to adequately tackle the problem of sexualized violence until
it addresses what they call a "boys will be boys" attitude, which allows sexual
abuse to go unpunished and may be even more pervasive within the military than
in civilian culture. Research by Duke University Law Professor Madeline Morris,
an expert on crime within the military, reveals that "the ratio of military
rapes to civilian rapes is substantially larger than the ratio of military rates
to civilian rates of other violent crime."
Retired Brigadier General Pat Foote, the first women to command a U.S. military
brigade in Europe, told Newshour that too many military men do not accept
women as equals. "As long as we have a military culture that does not imbed
in its fabric respect and dignity for every man and woman who wears the uniform
on an equal basis, we're going to come back to these scenarios time and time
again," she said.
Some feminists, along with groups strongly opposed to the military, suggest
that tinkering with military policies or redefining the culture within the armed
services is simply not enough – or perhaps not even possible – given what they
see as inseparable links between male-dominated gender relations and militarism.
"Despite the glossy brochures that advertise 'opportunities for women,'" reads
an anti-recruitment brochure put out by the Central Committee of Conscientious
Objectors, "the military's inherent sexism is evident from sergeants shouting
'girl!' at trainees who don't 'measure up,' to the intimidation of women who
speak out about harassment and discrimination, [to] military men's sexual abuse
of civilian women in base communities."