Making Military Sexual Assault Visible
Did you know that, according to the new documentary Invisible War, about 20 percent of women in the military are raped by coworkers, as are 1 percent of men? Did you know that the Department of Defense estimates that about 19,000 women in the military were raped in 2011?
Not only is rape an epidemic in the military, but prosecution rates are also low and retaliation against people who report it is high. The reporting process has to follow the chain of command, and this often makes it difficult to report the crime, let alone see justice. Of women who reported being assaulted, 25 percent said that the person they would have to report to was their rapist. Another third said that the person they would have to report to was a friend of the rapist. Of the few rapes that are reported, only 8 percent are ever prosecuted and just 2 percent end in conviction.
Survivors are not staying silent, however. They are making visible an issue that has been invisible for too long.
Nearly 30 current and former members of the military are suing Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense. They allege that they were raped by co-workers and that Rumsfeld’s failure to act on the issue of sexual assault in the military amounts to a violation of their constitutional rights. Filed in February 2011, AAUW began supporting this workplace sex discrimination lawsuit in the spring of 2011.
On December 13, 2011, a U.S. district court judge granted the Department of Defense’s motion to dismiss the case. The plaintiffs and lawyer are appealing the case, and oral arguments will be held in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in the coming months.
To try to create a legislative fix to the problem, in November Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act) to address structural changes needed in the military.
This issue also is being brought to light by Invisible War. It premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, and it features several of the plaintiffs from the lawsuit, including the named lead plaintiff Kori Cioca. It also features the attorney, Susan Burke, and Speier.
Two days before the film premiere, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon is preparing a series of initiatives to curb sexual assault in the military. While this is a positive step, many people are skeptical that anything will actually change. Sexual abuse in the military has been in the headlines off and on since the Tailhook scandal in 1991, and though military leaders promise over and over to change things, very little has been done. The high rate of assault continues.
I flew to Utah this past weekend and had the privilege of attending a screening and survivor speak-out with the subjects of the film. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. I cannot do justice to their stories, pain, and courage in a short blog post, so I simply recommend that you watch the film when it’s widely available and host screenings for your friends and community groups.
In the meantime, please contact your representative about the STOP Act, donate to AAUW to help offset the legal costs of the lawsuit, and visit the Invisible War website to learn about other action you can take.