Military Fails to Create Safe Working Environment for Women

Bethany Niebauer

The military is fond of parading tokens of femininity, but is less appreciative of and less willing to accommodate women's actual service.

military is fond of parading tokens of femininity.  They
point to female mascots such as Molly Pitcher and Margaret Corbin.  They like the idea of women’s service.  Being
the spouse of a soldier is touted as the "toughest job in the army."  They like to toast the spouses
at formal dinners and applaud them at deployment ceremonies. 

Like yellow
ribbons on the backs of cars, these gestures mean little.  The military
is less appreciative of and less willing to accommodate women’s actual
service.  A female helicopter pilot within the army recently told me
that her male colleagues often made her feel unwelcome by "forgetting"
to make her aware of last minute changes in plans and refusing to sit
with her at meal times.  A naval officer I spoke with confided that he
did not approve of integrated (meaning co-gendered) crews and attributed
higher rates of violence within such integrated crews to "[so many]
women with synchronized cycles."  When I married my husband, a soldier, I knew that I was joining a community
that was largely disinterested in the female experience, but I didn’t
know that they would have such a profound effect on women facing an
unwanted pregnancy, or a woman seeking to prevent pregnancy in the first place.

condoms are widely available for sale (and often given out for free
in the Navy), base and post pharmacies are not required to stock emergency
contraception and the majority of state side facilities choose not to,
to say nothing of overseas installations.  Because there is no law requiring
that it be available, the choice in this instance is up to the base
commander.  In places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait emergency contraception
is nearly impossible to obtain, while condoms are still relatively easy. 
The ubiquity of condoms compared to the rarity of emergency contraception
is telling.  While the military is very interested in protecting its
male members from the risks of intercourse, they are clearly less invested
in protecting their female members.

service members have almost no privacy when it comes to this issue.
Pregnancy tests, while easily available stateside, are not reliably
available to women serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  If a woman suspects
she is pregnant and cannot get a home test she has to go to a medic
who will prescribe one and if the results are positive, the medic will
inform her chain of command.  Whether or not she intends to continue
the pregnancy is irrelevant.  Pregnant service members who are deployed
are immediately sent back to their normal duty stations.  (I knew one
woman serving in Iraq who took a pregnancy test in the morning, found
out it was positive and was on a plane back to the United States that
evening.)  If she miscarries or terminates the pregnancy she will be
sent back to wherever her unit is serving, thus providing plenty of
fodder for the military’s incessant rumor mill.  She will likely be
"slut-shamed" or shamed for making a choice with which her superiors
might disagree.  This in turn, damages her cohesion with her unit and
raises her stress level, which raises her risk for suicide, something
the military knows a lot about.  A woman
facing an unwanted pregnancy who is tied to the military by marriage
or by contract faces restricted access to the choices that were rightfully
and legally hers before she got married or signed a contract. 

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well known that the military has appalling rates of sexual assault particularly
for women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a woman living on an army
installation, I had a much higher chance of being raped and murdered
by my husband than anyone else.  According to statistics released by
the Department of Defense, the rate of sexual assault rose eight percent
worldwide between 2008 and 2009 but rose 26% for women serving in Iraq
and Afghanistan.  Though alarming, these are just the numbers for reported
assaults.  According to the Department of Justice, 60% of sexual assaults
are unreported.  One has to wonder, how many rapes resulted in unwanted
pregnancy?  How many of those could have been prevented by emergency
contraception?  Why is the military so unwilling to make it available? 
Why are they so uninterested in protecting their sisters-in-arms?  More
importantly, why is the military so slow in creating a safe working
environment for women?  Why is it so hard?

in military hospitals cannot be performed except in cases of rape, incest
or to save the life of the mother.  If the woman happens to be living
or working stateside then she may be able to travel to a civilian provider
to have the procedure.  However, many military installations are in rural
areas that have poor access to reproductive health care services already. 
Out of the five states with the highest number of military installations,
four were given a grade of "D" or lower by NARAL Pro-Choice America
regarding the availability of reproductive health care. 

The difficulties
for women do not end there.  If a woman is living or working in one
of the many, many overseas installations, she can try to obtain an abortion
in that country (if it’s legal and available), or she can travel home,
losing time and money in the process.  Furthermore, military health insurance
only covers abortions performed to save the life of the mother.  Rape
and incest victims have to pay for any abortions themselves.  (On a side
note, the military’s health care provider also refuses to cover forensic
rape kits.)  Abortion is legal for all American women unless that woman
is living or working on an American base within a foreign country. 

a common joke that once you sign the papers to join a service (or marry
a service member), then that service "owns" you.  This seems to be
more true for women than it is for men.  The ability to create life is
one of the ways we define "woman," and the military seems determined
to inflict its arbitrary rules upon the lives of the women it owns.

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