One in five military women has been the victim of sexual harassment or abuse. The U.S. Senate is finally listening to the outcry from the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN). Will this really ever change?
"One week before my unit was scheduled to return back to the United States, I was raped by another service member that had worked with our team," former Army Technician Rebekah Havrilla told the U.S. Senate last week. "Initially, I chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command. … The unit climate was extremely sexist and hostile in nature toward women."
About 20 percent of military women report experiencing Military Sexual Trauma (MST), according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This includes unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening or offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities, and threatening and unwelcome sexual advances. By comparison, only one in 100 men report MST.
Two Service Women's Action Network staff members testified this month before the Senate on behalf of thousands of military service women who have been victims of sexual harassment and assault. This historic hearing marked the first time in almost 10 years that the Senate examined these outstanding issues.
SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Captain, and SWAN Outreach and Education Coordinator Havrilla shared their personal stories before the Senate.
Despite the large number of sexual harassment and assault cases reported to the VA, Bhagwati and Havrilla said that little has been done to prevent MST from occurring and that reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape, such as Havrilla's, are frequently "swept under the rug," says Bhagwati.
Bhagwati detailed to the Senate how she once attempted to file an investigation of an offending officer—and immediately was given a gag order by her commanding officer. She then "lived in fear of retaliation and violence" from the offender and her chain of command, while the offender went on to be promoted.
"Sexual violence is not just a 'women's issue.' It is widely misunderstood by military personnel, who have been overexposed to a culture of victim-blaming and rape mythology, where victims are considered responsible for their own assaults, and perpetrators are simply naïve young service members who might have had a lapse of professional judgment," Bhagwati said.
Bhagwati and Havrilla urged policymakers to:
- Professionalize the military criminal-justice system: Authority over criminal cases should be conducted by trained prosecutors, as commanding officers cannot be truly impartial and unbiased.
- Open civil courts to military victims: Currently, military persons are not allowed to bring claims for discrimination or negligence; therefore, the military is not held liable for failing to prevent or reprimand sexual harassment or assault infractions.
- Ensure survivors' VA claims get accepted: The Ruth Moore Act, not yet passed into law, could help in providing survivors of sexual assault with effective treatments for conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder.