Wounded warriors: sexual assault

The phenomenon of sexual violence in the US military is massively under-reported -- when the US Airforce commissioned Gallup to do a poll, one in five serving women said they had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and one in twenty men; but very few had formally reported the attacks to their commanding officer - Jenny Morgan reports from the Nobel Women's Conference in Quebec

Jenny Morgan
23 May 2011

First dinner of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on ending sexual violence in conflict, and I had the good fortune to sit in on a wide-ranging conversation that started when Anu Bhagwati, the former US Marine Corps company commander who runs a campaigning organisation called the Service Women's Action Network, told us that of the patients treated in US military veteran hospitals for sexual assault and harassment, 39 per cent are men.

These men have not necessarily been attacked for their sexual orientation, says   Bhagwati, although homophobia is still very strong in the US military, along with discrimination against women.   She believes the key feature that leads to a man being sexually attacked by his male comrades-in-arms is some form of outsiderness.   She recounted the case of a tough 6-ft heterosexual man in the infantry, who spoke with an East European accent and was regularly teased, but then was gang-raped by six of his colleagues.

The phenomenon of sexual violence in the US military is massively under-reported -- when the US Airforce commissioned Gallup to do a poll, one in five serving women said they had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and one in twenty men; but very few had formally reported the attacks to their commanding officer (or they may have tried, and been brushed aside -- Bhagwati says the East European was actually discharged from the army for 'being gay' -- since if he was sexually attacked, 'he must have been asking for it...').  

But even so, the official services estimate of around 19,000 sexual assaults a year breaks down to 55 rapes or assaults a day, most of them, says Bhagwati, on women, and most on bases, not 'in theatre', where US forces are on active military service.   Of the 3158 official reports made last year, only a quarter happened in theatre.

Jocelyn Kelly, who is conducting long-term research in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Women in War program, said the fact of most rapes and assaults occurring on US bases squares with her research amongst militia members in the DRC -- that sexual attacks are more likely to be prompted by boredom than by calculation of military advantage.   She went on to question the use of the term 'tactic of war' to describe rape in conflict, and said some myths had accumulated around sexual violence in conflict that needed to be challenged.   From her experience of interviewing members of militia groups that were usually chaotic and inadequately commanded, she thought that what happened was that very strong dynamics developed in their small groups that then created bizarre cultures.   It was difficult to see how, if rape was a conscious 'tactic', groups like the anarchic militias in DRC were capable of planning it.  

Kelly argued that the topic of sexual violence is deeply rooted in feminist theory, and that feminist theory has of course done so much, but some of it needs to be challenged.   'Feminists say, "There is always a war on women, and actual war just escalates it" -- but there isn't necessarily evidence for this'.   Sometimes sexual violence 'just happens'.   But its gendered meaning is clear, she says, from the fact that when militia members in the DRC rape men and boys, they call them their 'wives'.  

Anu Bhagwati said she doesn't believe the US military creates sexual predators.   She does think it condones them if they're already in the ranks, and people serving alongside such a predator rarely if ever speak out against them.   She argues that good people in a unit need to take it on themselves to encourage and support a victim.   She says that what happens now is that the victim of a sexual assault is constantly teased about the attack by her or his fellows; she thinks what would help greatly would be if the powerful idea of the 'wounded warrior' was expanded to include people sexually assaulted by their peers, and that needs to happen both at leadership level in the army, and amongst ordinary soldiers.   And, she said, 'if there were a legal deterrent, you'd see a change in senior officers' behaviour.   I don't know if you can change sexual predators, but you can certainly change the way you treat them'.

Jocelyn Kelly said she thought the military's campaign to promote reporting of abuses -- known as 'conscientious bystanding' --  was encouraging, because it aimed to normalise speaking out; Anu was less convinced -- in fact she called it 'a waste of tax dollars', because the campaign presumes sexual assaults happen when soldiers drink -- it conflates, she says, inappropriate behaviour with the committing of a crime.

Wangu Kanja from Kenya, whose own experience of rape led to her starting a foundation to campaign against sexual violence, said she thought rape happened less as a tactic and more because the opportunity presented itself.   She described how, in the chaotic aftermath of the 2007 general election in Kenya, the police 'took advantage' -- in Kibera, for instance, police went from door to door, asking if the man of the household was in -- if he wasn't, they raped the women and girls in the house.   Kanja said they raped women rather than stealing and looting because degrading women was the one thing that made these poorly paid, badly trained, publicly detested policemen feel better about themselves.

The conversation took many other paths, too detailed to report here.   But Jocelyn Kelly said she thought she couldn't have been at a more appropriate table -- dealing constantly with sexual violence in conflict is, she said, isolating work -- your friends don't necessarily want to talk about it, and in any case there are all sorts of sensitivities -- so to have had this conversation, and to have heard echoes of her own findings and experience from other women's work, was consoling and invigorating.

The conference starts today, and I'll be reporting on discussions as they develop.


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