Weak Progress on Ending Military Sexual AssaultJanuary 15, 2013
“When we can’t protect those who protect our rights, something is wrong,” said Martin R. Castro, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, as he opened a hearing on military sexual assault last week.
As government reports document and as the AAUW-supported, Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War demonstrates, sexual assault is a rampant problem in our military. Only 8 percent of reported military sexual assaults are prosecuted, and only 2 percent of those end in convictions. Overall, reporting is very low.
Last week’s hearing was part of the commission’s fact-finding process before they make recommendations to the president and Congress about how best to protect the civil rights of military members and stop sexual assault. Throughout the daylong hearing, which I attended as an AAUW representative, commission members listened to the testimony of legal experts and people who work with survivors, and military leaders spoke about their initiatives. AAUW also submitted our own statement to the commission.
A common recommendation among nonmilitary witnesses was to change how rapes are reported and prosecuted. Right now, reports must be made through a soldier’s chain of command, even though their chain of command may include the alleged rapist or one of his friends. When reports are made, people in power have the discretion to change rape charges to lesser charges like adultery, allowing the offender to remain on active duty.
A few people at the briefing suggested that rape cases should be tried in civilian rather than military court, a procedure militaries in several other countries successfully use. The Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which AAUW supports, calls for this kind of independent review process.
During the panel, leaders from various military branches highlighted their new prevention initiatives. For example, the Navy recently hired 66 new victim advocates, trained 150 attorneys, and gave 30,000 sailors “bystander” training to prevent assault. The Army created new “special victim capabilities” and requires soldiers to learn intervention tactics, in addition to “constant” training and education for commandants, investigators, and judges.
When members of the commission asked the military leaders if they would be open to changing the reporting process and removing the discretion that the chain of command has over rape reports, the military leaders said no. They felt it was important for commanders to retain control over the reporting and discipline process.
While I am glad the military is tackling prevention efforts in a more comprehensive way, I wonder how much will change if survivors still face barriers to reporting, if alleged rapists likely face little punishment, and if commanders have so much power?
In the 22 years since the Tailhook scandal, we have witnessed a cycle: scandals of sexual violence within the military, the revelation of abuse of power, and then congressional hearings during which the military promises to do better. Rinse and repeat.
I want to hope that this time will be different, in part because there is more public awareness thanks to The Invisible War and the high-profile lawsuits that the Legal Advocacy Fund supports. After hearing the military’s response on Friday, however, my hope is waning.