You would think that when the military decides to (finally) address the epidemic level of sexual assault within its ranks, it would ask for women's voices to be part of the conversation. Judging by this picture, they don't.
This image, taken yesterday during the Senate Armed Services hearing on sexual assault in the military hearing shows a witness hearing with only one woman lost in a sea of eleven men. According to the National Journal, the committee refused to let any survivors of sexual assault speak. Yes, because women who have been through abuse coudn't possibly be useful on a panel about abuse. Better to let men (and only one woman) do all of the talking. Who knows what women will do if they are given the right to speak! Although the Senate Armed Services Committee is made up of six women (and twenty men ... ahem) the witness panel only featuring one woman's voice is frankly embarrassing.
Women should be given an equal (or dare I say prominent) voice on this panel because they are the ones primarily affected by sexual assault in the military. Although some rape victims happen to be men (and their stories should also be showcased during this panel), women face a much greater risk of sexual assault. For female soldiers, rape isn't rare, it's incredibly common. In fact, a woman serving in the U.S. military is far more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Sexual assault is so common that some female soldiers have come to fear their male comrades more than the men on the other side. For too many, their fellow soldiers are the ones who have become the enemy.
Rape isn't only frequent, it's also not taken seriously by officials. Out of the nearly 4,000 reports of sexual assault in the military last year, only 191 ended in convictions. Victims of rape are scared to come forward and those who do often aren't met with compassion, they're met with contempt. Because of these toxic conditions, it's not surprising that rape is very rarely reported. The Department of Defense estimates that 26,000 instances of sexual misconduct have taken place within the military this year, although that number encompasses anything from verbal assault to rape.
Organizations like as The Invisible War and politicians such as Senator McCaskill or Senator Gillibrand have been speaking out about the epidemic of sexual assault in the military for years. They argue that officials misuse their power when it comes to handling these cases and that the low conviction rate stems from high-ranking staff ignoring complaints and cries for help. Senator McCaskill, who's on the committee, said "When I saw how the military was dealing with this problem, I realized how out of step they were with the criminal justice system."
Army General Martin Dempsey, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted during the panel yesterday that the military has often inadvertently enlisted men with criminal histories of sexual violence. Senator McCain, also on the panel, was utterly shocked. He then proceeded to advise women to stop enlisting in the army until the rape crisis is solved. "Just last night, a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not," he explained.
Although it's refreshing to hear a male politician publicly recognize the extent of the problem of rape in the military, the logic of his argument is flawed. If male soldiers are the ones who are committing the bulk of offenses, why is it up to women to restrict their choices and stay away from the military? Solving the rape epidemic might take years. Is he suggesting that women shouldn't consider the army for all this time? It is comments like these that reinforce the idea that women have a role in preventing abuse, not men. His intentions are pure, but the principles underlying his recommendations aren't helpful.
Women staying at home won't stop rape. Men not raping will stop rape. Hopefully, this committee can look at this problem with this lens rather that one that perpetuates the victim-blaming that perpetuates the rape culture that allows so many sexual assaults to go unreported and unpunished.
Female soldiers are audaciously fighting for our country every single day. Let's make sure they can remain fearless in that endeavour by ending the culture of silence around sexual assault. That begins by recognizing whose behavior must change and showcasing the voices that have been left in the dark for far too long.
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