The prevalence of sexual violence against American women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is a national shame.
U.S. servicewomen today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. At some Veterans Affairs hospitals, over 40 percent of female patients report having been sexually assaulted during their service, and almost one-third are survivors of rape.
Here in the States, a 2006 investigation by the Associated Press found that more than 100 high school-aged women were sexually assaulted or raped by male military recruiters. "Women were raped on recruiting office couches, assaulted in government cars and groped en route to entrance exams," the AP reported. Many recruiters found guilty of sexually assaulting women faced only administrative punishments, while a recruiter who molested teenage boys was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
These horrific statistics don't even take into account the experiences of American women working for government contractors in Iraq. A recent Nation magazine investigation by reporter Karen Houppert told the story of Lisa Smith (a pseudonym), who was gang-raped in Iraq this past January while working for Kellogg Brown & Root, the former Halliburton subsidiary. Houppert writes:
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That dawn, naked, covered in blood and feces, bleeding from her anus, [Smith] found a US soldier she did not know lying naked in the bed next to her: his gun lay on the floor beside the bed, she could not rouse him and all she could remember of the night before was screaming and screaming as the soldier anally penetrated her while a colleague who worked for defense contractor KBR held her hand–but instead of helping her, as she had hoped, he jammed his penis in her mouth.
Over the next few weeks Smith would be told to keep quiet about the incident by a KBR supervisor. The camp's military liaison officer also told her not to speak about what had happened, she says.
This brutal crime – and KBR's subsequent cover-up – are far from isolated events. Jamie Leigh Jones, who alleges that employees of KBR/Halliburton gang-raped her in Iraq in 2005, founded a non-profit to advocate for women who were assaulted while working as military contractors abroad. Jones' group is working with 40 victims. And a single Texas law firm is representing 15 women with sexual harassment, assault, rape, or retaliation (for reporting a sexual assault) claims against Halliburton and its affiliates.
Some will look at the breadth of the U.S. military's sexual assault problem and conclude that women should not be serving in combat zones. But that ignores the real and impressive achievements of female soldiers, who've stepped up as never before during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in large part due to the growing obsolescence of the military's ban on women serving at the "front lines." Last month, Monica Lin Brown, an Army medic from Texas, became only the second woman since World War II to receive a Silver Star. During a roadside bombing attack, Brown saved the lives of wounded soldiers, running through insurgent gunfire to shield them from attack.
So how can we respect women's military service while simultaneously helping them fight a culture that puts them at serious risk of sexual harassment, assault, and rape? Here are some practical policy solutions:
- Increase the DOD's rate of prosecution of sexual harassment, assault, and rape claims. As Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week, outside of the military, 44 percent of reported rapes result in an arrest, and 64 percent of those arrests result in a trial. But inside the military, only about 8 percent of reported sexual assaults and rapes lead to a court martial. Under pressure, the Department of Defense reluctantly agreed last year to create a Sexual Assault and Response Office. It must be held accountable and given wide latitude to create training programs that change the military's sexual culture. And every sexual assault victim who comes forward should be given an advocate to represent him or her through the process to a court martial.
- Repeal Order 17. Order 17, approved by Paul Bremer, exempts American military contractors from being prosecuted for crimes under the Iraqi criminal justice system. As a result, not a single U.S. contractor has been tried for a violent crime in Iraq, despite overwhelming evidence that contractors have committed atrocities against both their fellow Americans and Iraqi civilians.
- Pressure the Justice Department to prosecute the crimes of military contractors. So far, the Bush administration has been mostly indifferent to victims of sexual assault in Iraq.
- Disallow work contracts that waive victims' rights to civil and criminal complaints. Halliburton and its subsidiaries have required employees to sign contracts that waive their legal rights, and require all complaints against other workers to be filed through a "Dispute Resolution Program." American courts have disagreed about the legality of the program, but no one should feel pressured to choose between employment and their legal rights.
- Require that birth control and emergency contraception be available on military bases. Senators Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer, Tom Harkin, Joseph Lieberman, and Frank Lautenberg have introduced the Compassionate Care for Servicewomen Act, which would do just that.
- Recruit more female military doctors. One American servicewoman in Iraq was raped by her doctor during a routine gynecological exam. Lisa Smith, the subject of Karen Houppert's Nation magazine expose, only began to come to terms with her rape when she was examined, weeks later, by a female doctor in Iraq. Female medical professionals can be crucial allies for victims.
- Foster women's leadership in the military. Research shows that one of the most effective tools for fighting sexual assault in a war zone is a commanding officer who, from the top, signals a zero tolerance policy for misogyny, sexual harassment, and assault. With the proper training, more male officers can implement that goal, but it is only through diversifying the officer corps that the military can truly change its culture into one of intrinsic respect for women.
Even if every one of these policies were implemented, sexual misconduct would likely continue to be disproportionately high in the military, since the culture values aggression and traditional masculinity over conflict resolution and gender equity. Criminal behavior also increases as tours of duty multiply, increase in length, and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, it isn't just American servicewomen and female contractors who pay the price for the military's sexual malfeasance. In one terrible case, American soldiers confessed last year to gang-raping a 14-year old Iraqi girl and then murdering her and three members of her family. Those soldiers are serving life sentences, and the ringleader of the plot faces the death penalty. But for every sexual assault that is prosecuted, others are never brought to light. Tragically, Iraqi victims have even fewer legal recourses than American women serving in Iraq.