A Silent Battle: Sexual Violence within Militaries Around the World
In the United States military alone, one in four service women report being sexually assaulted by a fellow service member, and approximately 76% of sexual violence survivors do not report their experiences. Despite an increase in reports, convictions of sexual assault have plummeted by almost 80% since 2015. In a 2019 focus group, one junior enlisted U.S. Marine said, “When I first got here, all the people in my shop specifically, they live on third deck and I got put on first deck…And when I asked why, they said it’s because I was going to get raped if I lived on third deck.” Across the world, many of those serving in the military report a lack of trust and satisfaction in the system and country in which they serve and protect. The military’s culture is dominated by a patriarchal structure with values such as rank, leadership, loyalty, and control of emotion. Due to the prevalence of hyper-masculinity and negative attitudes towards women, many victims of sexual misconduct and sexual assault do not report due to a fear of retaliation, a fear of not being believed, and/or facing victim blaming. Unlike the vast majority of militaries around the world, the U.S. is slowly becoming more transparent about the rates of sexual assault among its members. Ending sexual harassment and sexual violence in the military are necessary to protect human rights, address health care concerns, and assure military readiness.
In recent years, the high rates of sexual misconduct in the U.S. military has gained more and more media attention. Two of the many victims of sexual violence include LaVena Johnson and Vanessa Guillen. LaVena Johnson was a 19 year old E3 Private First Class in the U.S. Army stationed in Iraq. In 2005, her suspicious death left her grieving family with many questions that, to this day, still remain unanswered. Johnson’s death was officially ruled as a suicide by military investigators despite evidence of sexual assault and her family’s insistence that she was looking forward to her future plans of coming home and looking for a new job. After telling her family that she was being sexually harassed by an unnamed sergant, Vanessa Guillen, a 20 year old U.S. Army soldier, was murdered by another member of the Army in Fort Hood, Texas. Although Guillen herself did not make any official reports of the sexual harassment, many other female soldiers made complaints against this sergant that had been dismissed. Like Johnson and Guillen, young service members are as vulnerable as ever to unwanted advances from other members as well as higher ranking figures. While approximately 10,000 men are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military ever year, four out of five men do not report. Male cases often begin with hazing, eventually leading to harassment and sexual assault. Widespread homophobia within the military and the stigma associated with being lableled or identified as homosexual or weak are used as power and control tactics, often deterring not only women but men from reporting these crimes. The lack of attention and justice for survivors of sexual assault in the U.S. military adds to the continuation of a culture that fosters harassment and violence.
Unlike in the United States, sexual violence within the militaries of other countries is not a topic open for discussion. In Peru, the military does not even have a register for cases of sexual misconduct of any kind. A 2010, in-depth study examining sexual violence in the Peruvian Military explains the diffictulties in interviewing victims when the word “victim” is not something they acknoledge themselves, many avoiding certain questions all together. One of the many problems associated with a lack of reporting is a fear of retaliation, which would most likely be much harsher than it would be in other countries, like the United States. Although much of what occurs in North Korea remains unknown, some North Korean military women have described their service as agonizing as they suffer from a lack of food and nutrition as well as constant sexual assault. Many women have accused the French military of having a culture of intense misogyny and sexism causing them to cut their careers in the military short. In the United Kingdom, there has been a 35% increase of sexual assault within the military since 2016 and the U.K. military police is notroious for mishandling these cases. Unlike many other countries, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) requires both men and women to serve in the military. Authorities have made efforts to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct but since 2016 there has been a 20% increase of sexual assault complaints within the IDF. One in six women in the IDF report having experienced some level of sexual misconduct, but only 15% report it.
In militaries around the world, authorities have failed to provide justice and institute substantial reform relating to sexual harassment and assault. In the United States, efforts have been made to end the pattern of sexual assault in its military, such as the passing of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act of 2020. This bill addresses many issues such as allowing a service member to confidentially allege a sexual harassment complaint to an individual outside their immediate chain of command as well as moving prosecution authority for other offenses including murder, kidnapping, domesitc violence, and child abuse. Deputy Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Nick Pope, has spoken out on the sexual assault rates in the U.K.’s military expressing the need for, “Stepping up our education and awareness programs, reviewing our internal disciplinary procedures and raising awareness amongst personnel of where support is available.” Efforts to curb sexual assault and to raise awareness of the high rates of sexual misconduct in the military are limited to only a small number of countries. Sexual harassment and assault as well as misogyny and sexism is a problem that stains every military around the world; each country has a different way of dealing with it, which is, for most of them, not dealing with it at all.