By Karen Petree
The United States joined over 100 other countries in September at the United Nations and pledged to end sexual violence in war.
After it was adopted, Angelina Jolie, who campaigned for the issue with UK foreign minister William Hague, told the General Assembly, “you have a sent a message to survivors that their rights and dignity matter.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is fighting like hell to send that same message to the thousands of American service members sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers every year.
Sexual assault affects 1 in 6 American women in the general population. That statistic jumps to 1 in 3 women in the military, according to Service Women’s Action Network.
The scope of the problem is appalling. In Iraq, the fear of being raped by their brothers-in-arms was so pervasive it killed. Col. Janis Karpinski, a former military commander in Iraq, testified that several female soldiers died of dehydration: they didn’t drink enough because they feared being caught by male American soldiers on the way to the latrine at night.
That’s why Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal is so important.
Senator Gillibrand and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill have been hard at work pressuring their fellow lawmakers to side with their respective proposals that would change the way the military handles sexual assault within its ranks.
But McCaskill’s proposal, which is supported by the Pentagon and Senator John McCain, would not take court-martial proceedings out of the chain of command.
Currently, individuals must go to their immediate commanders to file accusations. The commanders then choose which cases to try. The chain of command is not impartial. When a victim comes to her superior officer to report being assaulted, she’s reporting to someone who usually knows both the victim and the attacker, who has a vested interest in maintaining order in a unit.
Gillibrand’s proposal takes sexual assault out of the chain of command. It’s a no-brainer. Women in civilian society report crimes to police trained to deal with such reports. If a male employee raped his female coworker, she wouldn’t tell expect their boss to deal with it: She’d to the police. Women in the military deserve the same opportunity for justice as women in civilian society.
And taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command would allow more room for thousands of other victims in the military to seek justice.
The Pentagon estimates that in addition to the more than 12,000 military women who are sexually assaulted while enlisted, over 13,000 men are as well. But there were only about 3500 complaints last year.
Pathetic as it is that men’s human rights have to piggyback on a “women’s issue,” the reality is that no one is immune to sexual assault.
Senator Gillibrand’s bill is the best option for the well-being of every soldier.