United States: Sexual assault of women in the military must be stopped

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Action Number: 
44.1
Date: 
2 Oct 2012
Update Date: 
13 Feb 2013
Update: 

20 AUGUST 2013 UPDATE: Recent developments indicate some Congressional and military momentum to address sexual assault in the military:

On 15 August, the US Department of Defense (DOD) gave an update on sexual assault prevention and response measures, during which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s seven new initiatives to “strengthen and standardize the department’s sexual assault prevention and response effort” were outlined. Though Equality Now welcomes the DOD’s acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue, the initiatives do not make the structural changes needed for violence to be prevented and for victims to access justice. As our partner SWAN stated, “small-scale military sexual assault solutions will not stem the cultural tide created by years of victim blaming and retaliation." Therefore we will continue to advocate for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) which would professionalize the military justice system and bring much needed justice to victims of sexual assault. Senator Gillibrand will be calling for a full Senate floor vote on the MJIA bill following the August Congressional recess. If you are in the US, please ask your Senator to support passage of this bill.

We are also encouraged by the House of Representatives’ passage in July of two amendments in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014 (HR 2397), offered by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), relating to the handling of sexual assault cases. This follows a recent report by the DOD Inspector General who found serious failures in the handling of military sexual assault investigations. Out of 501 investigations, 418 had “deficiencies” which compromised the victim’s chance of obtaining justice, and, overall, 399 of these cases had interview and post-interview deficiencies. Weaknesses were found in the interview process, collection of evidence, lead development and crime scene photography. The amendments address the pervasive misuse of ‘personality and adjustment disorder’ as a diagnosis of victims of sexual assault and provide additional funding to train investigators of sexual assault crimes. We hope the Senate will also show bi-partisan support for those that have suffered sexual assault in the US military by passing this bill.


24 MAY 2013 UPDATE: On 7 May, the US Department of Defense released their 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.  The report plainly showed that efforts to combat sexual assault in the military are not having the desired effect, and in fact, sexual violence and the culture of impunity are getting worse. Shockingly, the number of reported sexual assaults rose in every branch of the military with a 35% increase overall since 2010, from 19,300 service members in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012. Coming on the heels of the arrest for sexual battery of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the officer in charge of US Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and followed by revelations that two other US Army sexual assault prevention officers were accused of sex crimes, including an allegation linking one to a prostitution ring, it is abundantly clear that current efforts to address sexual assault in the US military are not being taken seriously.

Therefore, Equality Now welcomed the 16 May introduction of the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013 by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a bi-partisan bill which would remove the power to prosecute sexual assault from military commanders and transfer it to professional prosecutors. Equality Now and our partner SWAN (Service Women’s Action Network) have been consistently advocating for this reform and will be following the bill closely as it moves through the legislative process to ensure that sexual assault victims have access to justice in the military.


13 FEBRUARY 2013 UPDATE: Senator Jon Tester and Representative Chellie Pingree introduced the “Ruth Moore Act of 2013.” Named in recognition of Navy veteran, military sexual assault survivor and activist Ruth Moore (subject of our Action), the bill would lower the evidentiary burden needed to prove service-related PTSD for survivors so that they can receive benefits and necessary services from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The passage of this bill would fulfill one of the three objectives of Equality Now's campaign, and we will be following this process closely as it progresses.


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Approximately 19,000 sexual assaults take place in the U.S. military each year; Ruth Moore, at the age of 18, survived two of them. Ruth enlisted in the U.S. Navy during her senior year of high school in search of a better life. Her family couldn’t afford college and the military was her best chance at obtaining a college degree. In 1987, after boot camp and service school, Ruth was posted overseas in the Azores. Less than three months after arriving, her direct supervisor raped her and infected her with a sexually transmitted disease. Ruth reported this rape to the chaplain, whose role is to provide counseling and assistance. To her knowledge, her rapist was never investigated. The only response to her outcry was retaliation – Ruth was raped a second time by her supervisor.

Without any way to access help, Ruth became depressed and attempted suicide. After surviving this attempt, she went to the chaplain again seeking assistance. She was sent back to the US, placed in a psychiatric unit and wrongfully diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was a common diagnosis given to military sexual assault victims at the time. She was discharged from the Navy. It was easier for the military to get rid of her than to admit that she’d been raped. Ruth’s rapist was never charged or disciplined. From her sexual assaults, Ruth suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including panic attacks, migraine headaches and insomnia. She applied for disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) multiple times, but was denied. She was told she could not obtain benefits because she did not submit enough evidence to prove she was raped; she continued to challenge this assertion and fight for her rights. Finally in 2010, over 20 years after her assault, the VA acknowledged that she had been raped and was entitled to disability benefits. Ruth is now actively advocating for the rights of the many military sexual assault survivors.

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

Women are an integral and dynamic part of the U.S. military, and have served their country since the American Revolution. Women make up more than 14% of the U.S. Armed Services and more than 280,000 U.S. women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite their contributions and sacrifices, the U.S. military continues to be a hostile environment for women. Sexual assault and harassment in the military is fueled by the widespread gender-based discrimination within the U.S. military and exacerbated by policies and practices which victim-blame, don’t allow for the civil remedies available to non-military Americans, and fail to hold perpetrators accountable. For example, studies show that men in the military are more likely to believe in traditional sex-role attitudes and in rape myths, such as women “ask for it,” than a comparable group of civilian men. In military units where sexual harassment is tolerated or initiated by senior officers, incidents of rape triple or quadruple.

Service women raped by fellow service members rarely obtain justice or the services they need to recover. Approximately 1 out of every 100 sexual assaults in the military results in the conviction of the perpetrator. This is due to the multitude of obstacles rape survivors face in pursuing justice, including in reporting the crime, getting a thorough and impartial investigation, and seeing their assailant face appropriate charges and punishment.

Instead of an independent party, an officer within the perpetrator’s chain-of-command is charged with investigating sexual assault complaints and is given an enormous amount of discretion. This discretion leads to conflicts of interest and abuse of power, especially as both the survivor and perpetrator may be under the same officer’s command. Commanders also have an incentive to downplay or cover-up sexual assaults happening within their chain-of-command, as these crimes reflect poorly on the unit. Survivors must obtain justice through the military justice system. Unlike civilians, they cannot seek to hold their employer – the U.S. military - accountable through civil litigation for failing to protect them from sexual assault or harassment.


RESOURCE: Download our Fact Sheet on Sexual Assault in the Military (pdf)


Sexual assault and harassment causes the same rates of PTSD in women veterans as combat does in men. However, sexual assault survivors face particular challenges in accessing disability benefits from the VA as VA employees often disbelieve survivors’ accounts of assault – even when backed up by physician’s reports – and require evidence from other sources that corroborate the survivor’s account. Tellingly, only 32% of PTSD claims related to sexual assault are approved by the VA, while 54% of overall PTSD claims are approved. The VA must lower the evidentiary burden needed to prove service-related PTSD and accept the survivor’s testimony alone as proof that the sexual assault occurred.

The failure to protect service women from sexual assault while in the military and to enable survivors to obtain justice and services violates the United States’ international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires States to protect fundamental human rights that are commonly violated in these cases – including equal protection of the law, the right to be free from discrimination (including gender-based violence), and the right to an effective remedy. In her June 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women noted the “prevalent incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment” in the U.S. military and called on the United States to “ensure the effective implementation of a no-tolerance policy for rape…in the military, [and] ensure adequate investigation of all allegations by an independent authority.”

The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) is actively campaigning against impunity for sexual assault in the military and working to address the needs of survivors like Ruth, so that others don’t have to wait more than 20 years to obtain the help they need. Given that years of Congressional hearings, taskforces and reports have made no discernible change, it is clear that more assertive actions must be taken to better prevent sexual assault and enable survivors to access justice and services.

What You Can Do: 

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

Please join Equality Now and our partner SWAN in calling on:

The Secretary of Defense and the House & Senate Armed Services Committee Chairs to:
  • Reform the military justice system so that professional military prosecutors – not the perpetrator’s command – are responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of sexual assault. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have recently reformed their military justice systems in this manner so that commanders do not wield undue (and unmonitored) influence over sexual assault cases.

 Send letters to:

The Hon. Chuck Hagel
Secretary of Defense
Office of the Sec. of Defense
1400 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
Tel: +1(703) 571-3343
Fax: +1(703) 571-8951
Email: chuck.hagel@osd.mil

Congressman Buck McKeon
House Armed Service Committee Chair
U.S. House of Representatives
2184 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: +1(202) 225-1956
Fax: +1(202) 226-0683
Facebook: www.facebook.com/BuckMcKeon
Twitter: @BuckMcKeon

Senator Carl Levin
Senate Armed Service Committee Chair
U.S. Senate
269 Russell Office Bldg
Washington, DC 20510
Tel: +1(202) 224-6221
Fax: +1(202) 224-1388
Facebook: www.facebook.com/carllevin
Twitter: @SenCarlLevin

The Secretary of Defense, the House & Senate Armed Services Committee Chairs, and the House & Senate Judiciary Committee Chairs to:

  • Allow survivors of sexual assault in the military to access civil remedies so that they, like civilians, can hold their employer – the U.S. military – accountable for sexual harassment and assault.

 Send letters to:

The Honorable Chuck Hagel, Congressman Buck McKeon, Senator Carl Levin (contacts listed above)

Senator Patrick Leahy
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair
U.S. Senate
437 Russell Senate Bldg
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Tel: (202) 224-4242
Fax: 202-224-3479
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SenatorPatrickLeahy
Twitter: @SenatorLeahy

Congressman Lamar Smith
House Judiciary Committee Chair
U.S. House of Representatives
2409 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: 202-225-4236
Fax: 202-225-8628
Facebook: www.facebook.com/LamarSmithTX21
Twitter: @LamarSmithTX21

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the House & Senate Committee of Veterans’ Affairs Chairs to:

  • Provide survivors suffering from PTSD stemming from their sexual assault with the services they need to recover from their trauma by lowering the unnecessarily high evidentiary burden they face in order to prove their assault and access disability benefits.

 Send letters to:

The Hon. Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Tel: +1(800) 827-1000
Email: Eric.Shinseki@va.gov

The Honorable Allison Hickey
Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Tel: 1.800.827.1000
Email: Allison.hickey@va.gov

Congressman Jeff Miller
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chair
U.S. House of Representatives
2416 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: +1(202) 225-4136
Fax: +1(202) 225-3414
Facebook: www.facebook.com/RepJeffMiller

Senator Patty Murray
Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chair
U.S. Senate
269 Russell Office Bldg
Washington, DC 20510
Tel: +1(202) 224-2621
Fax: +1(202) 224-0238
Twitter: @PattyMurray

Letters: 

Letter Regarding Reform of the Justice System

Dear Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

I am writing to express my deep concern about the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within the U.S. military and the continued impunity for service members who sexually harass and assault their fellow service women. Approximately 19,000 sexual assaults occur in the military each year and as few as 1 out of every 100 sexual assaults results in the conviction of the perpetrator.

This low conviction rate is due to the multitude of obstacles rape survivors face in pursuing justice, including in reporting the crime, getting a thorough and impartial investigation, and seeing their rapist/assailant face appropriate charges and punishment. I am concerned that instead of an independent party, an officer within the perpetrator’s chain-of-command is charged with investigating sexual assault complaints and is given an enormous amount of discretion, which can lead to conflicts of interest and abuse of power, especially as both the survivor and perpetrator may be under the same officer’s command. In addition, commanders have an incentive to downplay or cover-up sexual assaults happening within their chain-of-command, as these crimes reflect poorly on the unit.

The failure to protect service women from sexual assault while in the military, to ensure justice for survivors, and to enable survivors to obtain justice and services violates the United States’ international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This Convention requires States to protect fundamental human rights that are commonly violated in these cases – including equal protection of the law, the right to be free from discrimination (which includes gender-based violence), and the right to an effective remedy.
I urge you to reform the military justice system so that professional military prosecutors – not the perpetrator’s command – are responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of sexual assault. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have recently reformed their military justice systems in this manner so that commanders do not wield undue (and unmonitored) influence over sexual assault cases, and I urge you to consider this approach.

Yours sincerely,

cc:
Congressman Buck McKeon, House Armed Services Committee, Chair
Senator Carl Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee, Chair


Letter Regarding Civil Remedies

Dear Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

I am writing to express my deep concern about the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within the U.S. military and the continued impunity for service members who sexually harass and assault their fellow service women. Approximately 19,000 sexual assaults occur in the military each year and as few as 1 out of every 100 sexual assaults results in the conviction of the perpetrator.

This low conviction rate is due to the multitude of obstacles rape survivors face in pursuing justice, including in reporting the crime, getting a thorough and impartial investigation, and seeing their rapist/assailant face appropriate charges and punishment. I am concerned that unlike civilians, military rape survivors have no way of holding their employer – the U.S. military – accountable through civil litigation for failing to protect them from sexual assault or harassment.

The failure to protect service women from sexual assault while in the military and to ensure survivors are able to obtain justice violates the United States’ international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires States to protect fundamental human rights that are commonly violated in these cases – including equal protection of the law, the right to be free from discrimination (which includes gender-based violence), and the right to an effective remedy.

I urge you to ensure that military women can pursue and obtain justice for harassment and sexual violence they endure.  I call on you to allow survivors of sexual assault in the military to access civil remedies so that they, like civilians, can hold their employer accountable for sexual harassment and assault and can obtain the justice they deserve.

Yours sincerely,

cc:
Congressman Buck McKeon, House Armed Services Committee, Chair
Senator Carl Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee, Chair
Senator Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee, Chair
Congressman Lamar Smith, House Judiciary Committee, Chair


Letter to Veterans' Affairs

Eric Shinseki
Secretary of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Dear Secretary Shinseki:

I am writing to express my deep concern about the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within the U.S. military and the many obstacles sexual assault survivors face in accessing the services they need to recover. There are approximately 19,000 sexual assaults in the U.S. military each year. Sexual assault and harassment cause the same rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in women veterans as combat does in men.

However, sexual assault survivors face particular challenges in accessing disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as VA employees often disbelieve survivors’ accounts of assault – even when backed up by physician’s reports – and require evidence from other sources that corroborate the survivor’s account. This disbelief and failure to provide needed services serves to re-victimize those who seek assistance. Tellingly, only 32% of PTSD claims related to sexual assault are approved by the VA, while 54% of overall PTSD claims are approved. The VA must lower the evidentiary burden needed to prove service-related PTSD and accept the survivor’s testimony alone as proof that the sexual assault occurred.

The failure to protect service women from sexual assault while in the military and to enable survivors to obtain justice and services violates the United States’ international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires States to protect fundamental human rights that are commonly violated in these cases – including equal protection of the law, the right to be free from discrimination (which includes gender-based violence), and the right to an effective remedy.

I would like to urge you to revise your policy to ensure that survivors suffering from PTSD stemming from their sexual assault are provided with the services they need without undue delays. I call on you to lower the unnecessarily high evidentiary burden they face in order to prove their assault and access disability benefits.

Yours sincerely,

cc:
The Honorable Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veterans Affairs
Senator Patty Murray, Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Chair
Congressman Jeff Miller, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Chair