Serving the Nation Under Threat of Sexual Assault
Women around the world face violence and persecution every single day. This high frequency of gender-based violence (GBV) constitutes a global epidemic that must be addressed. In addition to violating women and children's human rights, GBV also destabilizes countries by hindering economic progress and preventing women from contributing to their community. Girls are especially affected, and The Advocates for Human Rights note that, “Although international legal instruments have been in place for decades to protect the girl child, thousands of brutal acts of violence and neglect specifically targeting the girl child can be observed around the world on a daily basis.” Examples include forced marriages, limited or no education opportunities, and labor or sex trafficking.
To advance the United States’ efforts to curb gender-based violence around the world, Rep. Jan Schakowsky plans to reintroduce the International Violence against Women Act (I-VAWA) in Congress. This act prioritizes the goal of reducing violence and bringing perpetrators to justice in at least five countries where gender-based violence is most severe. Among other things, the bill aims to “alleviate poverty and increase the cost-effectiveness of foreign assistance by investing in women…Enable the US government to develop a faster and more efficient response to violence against women in humanitarian emergencies and conflict-related situations, and build the effectiveness of overseas non-governmental organizations—particularly women’s non-governmental organizations—in addressing violence against women.”
Gender-Based Violence in the U.S.
Acts of violence against women and girls also take place in the United States. Examples of gender-based violence against women and girls include sexual assault, rape, forced marriages, genital mutilation, sex trafficking and domestic violence. The U.S., along with the United Nations, recognizes October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child in order to raise awareness of the unjust living and cultural conditions that girls face everywhere. The focus this year was on improving education access for girls through technology, increased funding and improved transportation methods.
In addition to the International Day of the Girl Child, the United States also recognizes the month of October as the Domestic Violence Awareness month, to highlight the violence that women face—often —in the United States. Domestic Violence Awareness month began as a “Day of Unity” on the first Monday of October in 1981, to connect battered women’s advocates across the country. It has since grown into a month for victims of violence from an intimate partner to be recognized. The Avon Foundation for Women conducted a survey to determine the number of women who have discussed domestic violence with their friends, as well as the number who say they received help after reaching out to friends. The survey reveals that 60 percent of women know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. At the same time, 58 percent of women who told someone about domestic violence or sexual assault said that no one helped them afterward.
Under-Reporting in the Military
One arena where sexual assault and under-reporting has been most prevalent is in the military. In May, 2013, the U.S. military conducted an anonymous survey among its service men and women to determine the amount of unreported sexual assaults. The responses revealed that an estimated 26,000 instances of sexual assault occurred in 2012, compared to only 2,949 crimes reported. Approximately 14,000 victims were men and 12,000 were women, with only two percent of the attackers identified as women. The Christian Science Monitor reported that other surveys suggest that the driving force behind the large percentage of unreported sexual assaults is the belief that coming forward with allegations will not result in any punishment for the perpetrator. Because victims must report incidents to commanders who are directly in their chain of command, there is also a fear of retaliation.
In May, 2012, three former football players at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, allegedly committed sexual assault at an off-campus party. The victim, a 21-year-old woman in her third year at the school, brought charges of possible sexual assault to Navy criminal investigators. She was disciplined for drinking at the party, but the school administration closed the investigation into the incident without any charges against the alleged attackers. The woman then hired a private lawyer, who said that, “this case reflects why rape victims are fearful and skeptical of the military justice system.”
The case was reopened this year and referred to a special hearing, called Article 32, in order to determine if enough evidence exists for the case to go to a court-martial. During the hearing, the alleged victim endured more than 20 hours of questioning over four days from defense attorneys. A former prosecutor, Roger Canaff, noted that “no civilian court in any state in the country would allow the kind of questions that are routinely permitted at Article 32 hearings. The legal proceedings are so hard on women who allege sexual assault that a lot of cases die there as a result.” Recently, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that sexual assault in the military “may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”
Combating Sexual Assault
The military has implemented new programs to address the current obstacles to reporting. Since training sessions for recruits were enacted in early 2011 at a Naval station in Great Lakes, IL, reports of sexual assault dropped by 60 percent at the base. In order to support victims in bringing their sexual assault cases to court, the Air Force decided in January, 2013, to initiate a Special Victims Counsels (SVC) program. This program provides an additional lawyer for every case to help navigate the intricacies of the military justice system and to personally represent the victim. Previously, alleged victims received prosecuting attorneys from the military who represent the services. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel promised to adopt the SVC program into all branches of the military.
While these new programs are beneficial in many ways and represent a step in the right direction, one woman who has been in combat argues that the military can do more. Monica Medina served in the army for four years and, as a special assistant to the secretary of defense in 2012, helped to end the rule that prohibited women from serving on the front lines in war. She recommends that the military take four steps to further prevent sexual assault:
- Enforce tougher penalties for substance abuse
- Discharge sexual offenders immediately
- Provide every victim of sexual assault with a lawyer automatically
- Recruit and promote more women
The new SVC program addresses the third proposal, and the Navy recently announced that it will no longer sell alcohol on bases between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Still, Medina argues that the root causes of the reporting silence must be addressed to achieve institutional change.
A major reason why it is so difficult for victims of sexual assault to win their cases and see their attacker brought to justice is the requirement to report any assault within the chain of command. This means that victims must present cases of sexual assault to their commander. Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel, says, “Having a sexual assault case in your unit is considered something bad, so commanders have had an incredible incentive not to destroy their own careers by prosecuting someone.”
"A Shame Upon Our Nation"
The case of the 21-year-old Naval Academy student who brought charges against three football players resulted in a decision to not recommend any of the accused Midshipmen for court-martial. However, the superintendent of the academy set aside the recommendation and ordered two of the three men to a court-martial that has yet to take place. All three of the students accused of sexual assault still attend the same school as the alleged victim.
Senator Barbara Boxer of California has called sexual assault in the military “a shame upon our nation.” She is leading Senate efforts to move sexual assault trials out of the chain of command and into the hands of impartial military prosecutors.
While the International Day of the Girl Child and a month of recognition of domestic violence are important for raising awareness around these issues, the rights of women and children must be upheld every day of the year. The statistics of underreported sexual assaults in the U.S. military require immediate attention and action. The culture of silence must not be changed in the military alone, but in American society and the world at large. Elected officials and survivors of domestic violence have initiated the change, and now your voice is needed to push the proposed legislation through to new laws and policies.
Contact members of your Senate and House delegation to urge their support of the Military Justice Improvement Act, S. 967, which would require that all prosecuting attorneys for an alleged sexual assault have significant experience and are not in the alleged victim’s chain-of-command, as well as the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention (STOP) Act, H.R. 1593, to create an independent office to handle the prosecution, reporting, oversight and victim care of sexual assault cases that is separate from the normal chain of command.
Visit your members of Congress at their district office or telephone to urge the introduction of the International Violence against Women Act.
Support school programs that educate students to respect girls and have healthy relationships like the Expect Respect program being implemented in Austin, Texas.
Become a mentor to a young woman at a National Mission Institution in your community. Contact Marva Usher-Kerr, Executive for Membership, to learn more about the United Methodist Women’s Limitless Program. Contact her at MUsherke@unitedmethodistwomen.org.
- Read the Charleston City Paper article “A Brutal State: Advocates say culture, courts partly to blame for S.C.’s high ranking in domestic homicides.”
- Read Resolution 5034, “Mission Plan for Restorative Justice Ministries” (pages 651-662), in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).
For further information, call Susie Johnson at the Washington Office of Public Policy at (202) 488-5660.