About a week ago I had the opportunity to attend a panel at the national NOW conference titled “Women Warriors: Issues Confronting Servicewomen and Women Veterans.”
Led by Anu Bhahwati, Executive Director of SWAN, and Greg Jacob of SWAN, the Service Women’s Action Network, the workshop was meant to educate conference participants about an issue that still fails to garner mainstream attention, the treatment of women service workers and veterans. I was so disturbed by the gravity of the situation that I have decided to dedicate my next three Feminists for Choice posts to the issue.
It may not come as a surprise to Feminists for Choice readers that sexual assault is an appalling problem facing female troops. Among the more startling statistics:
- From 2008 to 2009 there was an increase of 11% in reported military sexual assaults. The Department of Defense reported 3,230 assaults in 2009 (the department’s last report).
- In 2008 there were 163 sexual assaults reported in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.
- Under-reporting of sexual assault is an even larger problem in the military than outside. The Department of Defense reports estimates that 80% of assaults go unreported. (The Department of Justice estimates that 60% of civilian sexual assaults go unreported.)
Not only can female troops not expect protection from assault by fellow officers, they can’t even expect appropriate treatment. According to SWAN, high numbers of sexual assault victims report a “second victimization” during treatment, leading to higher rates of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) . Furthermore, victims using military services report lower quality of care and lower satisfaction rates than those who receive treatment on the outside.
Lets pause for a moment at the mention of treatment for troops and veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that has received a lot of attention over the past five years or so.
Consider this: the primary cause of PTSD for male troops is combat, an expected and routine aspect of service. The primary cause of PTSD for female troops: military sexual trauma. Is it safe to say that for women sexual assault is simply part of the deal, an expected risk troops are willing to take in order to serve their country?
With all that has been said over the past five years about improving military mental health treatment, specifically for troops suffering from PTSD, one would think that sexual assault, the leading cause of the disorder for female troops, would be a matter of more consideration. (Note: On Sunday President Obama announced that the VA is planning on announcing new regulations for treating PTSD. The announcement is expected to come today.)
Given the misogynistic environment of the military, it is no surprise that it is an environment plagued by sexual abuse. Since Vietnam, 79% of women serving in the military report experiences of sexual harassment.
One is also led to question the military’s priorities regarding talent retention. In a similar manner that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell costs the military talent, the hostile environment forces women to forgo their service. Sexual harassment itself increases turnover rate by 32%. This instability has many hidden costs. According to SWAN:
- Adjusting for inflation, the average cost of attrition per service member in 2010 ranged from approximately $34,621 to $53,251.
- Adjusting for inflation, in 2009 the VA spent nearly $820 million dollars on sexual assault-related treatment.
- The Department of Defense estimates that legal expenses resulting from military sexual assault cases average $40,000 per case. The 181 sexual assault court cases in 2008 cost the Department of Defense more than 7 million dollars in legal expenses.
That being said, I feel a sense of guilt giving fiscal justification for why more should be done to protect female troops from sexual assault.
SWAN is one organization that is trying to create change in the military’s environment and make it a more welcoming place for women.
One of the organization’s top priorities is combating military sexual trauma, which they attack on both an advocacy level and on a policy level. Their advocacy work involves peer support for victims, counseling and legal referrals, workshops and retreats to help survivors, and more. Services are offered to both male and female troops that experience military sexual trauma.
Unless otherwise noted, I took all statistics from SWAN fact sheets (available on their website).
My next post will address Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the disproportionate way that it impacts women.
Janice is a Virtual Assistant, aspiring doula, and long-time feminist activist with a passion for women's history, nonfiction, nature, and wearing flowers in her hair. She is the Founder of The Feminist's Guide, a women's history travel website, which can be found at www.thefeministguide.com.