Women in the Military
As the highest-ranking female member on the House Armed Services Committee, I have the opportunity to see first-hand the significant contributions of our women in uniform. Women of all races and ages have served in every military conflict since the Revolutionary War, including our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite their many accomplishments, female servicemembers are not always recognized for their role on the battlefield. Nor do they always receive the tools they need to serve safely and effectively in combat.
I recently had the opportunity to lead an all-female Congressional Delegation to Afghanistan. The primary purpose of our trip was two-fold: to see how women in combat are adapting to their increasing role, and to view the situation in Afghanistan from a woman’s perspective. In addition to meeting with top military officials, including General McChrystal, my colleagues and I were able to visit with female servicemembers to learn about some the unique challenges still facing women in combat.
There are currently over 29,000 women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they continue to encounter barriers not experienced by their male counterparts. Female servicemembers are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions, less likely to receive vital combat training (even though they de facto serve on the front lines), and less likely to have access to women doctors or female-oriented care. But one thing they are more likely to experience is sexual assault or abuse while serving in the Armed Forces.
Last year, the Department of Defense reported a 7.6% increase in the number of sexual assault cases involving military personnel. Part of this increase is accounted for by an increase in the number of victims willing to report their assaults and greater transparency in military reporting procedures. But the underlying issue of sexual assault continues to exist, and female servicemembers continue to be the majority of victims.
When I spoke to women, including Latinas, on the ground in Afghanistan, they said the military has taken significant steps to prevent and prosecute assaults. This is, of course, encouraging. But the reality is that women continue to serve in a military environment that is not always welcoming and is, at times, outright misogynistic. That’s why counselors and rape kits are now common in war zones, and why there is still only one female four-star general in the entire military.
One of my top priorities in Congress has been working with our military leaders to create an inclusive environment for all our women in uniform. In 2005, I successfully revised the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include a meaningful sexual assault statute that better protects victims and empowers prosecutors. And more recently, in the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, my HASC colleagues and I were able to include a provision to create a sexual assault database, which will document reported cases of assault across the services and encourage greater accountability in each military branch.
Moving forward, we have to continue to expand opportunities for female servicemembers of all races and combat discrimination in all its forms. Sexual abuse and other acts of misogyny violate the core principals of our Armed Forces. The challenges facing female servicemembers – obstacles to promotion, discrimination, and sexual assault – are challenges that affect the strength and integrity of our entire military. Congress and our military leaders must work harder, together, to create a military environment that encourages and supports the women soldiers who serve this country.