White House vows to tackle sexual assault in military amid rise

A Pentagon survey released this week finds that reported sexual assault cases in the US military increased by 13 percent in 2021.

The Pentagon is seen from the air in Washington, DC
The Pentagon has promised to take a preventive approach to sexual assault in the US military amid criticism that it has not done enough to address the problem [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

The Biden administration has said ending sexual assault and harassment in the United States military remains a priority after a report released this week found that reported cases of sexual assault in the military jumped 13 percent last year.

“One sexual assault is one too many and the president has been clear about making sure we implement real change to rid our ranks of this crime,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday.

She said President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January to respond to gender-based violence in the military, including making sexual harassment a specific offence under the US military justice code. Critics have accused the government of failing to take the bold steps they say are necessary to address the problem.

“We understand there is more work to do, of course, as this new data demonstrates,” Jean-Pierre said. “But addressing the scourge of sexual assault in the military will continue to be a priority for the Department of Defense and this administration.”

According to a confidential survey released by the Pentagon on Thursday, reports of sexual assault across the US military increased by 13 percent in the 2021 fiscal year compared with the previous year.

The survey showed that 8.4 percent of active-duty women experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact last year, while the figure for men roughly doubled to 1.5 percent.

Nearly 36,000 service members said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic increase over the roughly 20,000 who said that in a similar 2018 survey.

But the rate at which US military members reported these incidents declined, the survey found: about one in five service members reported their sexual assault to authorities in 2021, down from one in three in 2016 and 2018.

“The results are a tragic reminder of the challenges we face and the absolute need for continued leadership, engagement, historic reforms that remain under way,” Beth Foster, executive director for force resiliency at the US Defense Department, told reporters on Thursday.

The figures were driven by large increases in the army and the navy as bases began to move out of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, authorities said.

Military officials have promised to take a preventive approach to sexual assault and said an infusion of $479m to hire as many as 2,400 personnel for a new “prevention workforce” would help them respond to the problem.

Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office, said the funds will “go a long way toward funding and sustaining change over time”.

‘National crisis’

But more than half of those surveyed said they were not satisfied with the response of their chain of command or law enforcement to their particular incident, and 30 to 40 percent said they were unhappy with the assault response staff.

More than 20 percent of women surveyed also said filing a sexual harassment complaint would be “too risky”, suggesting that faith in the military’s willingness to address sexual misconduct remains low.

Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research for the Pentagon, said some of the decline may reflect a broader distrust in the military and other government organisations that has deepened in recent years.

“We also see declining retention intentions, and declining confidence in potential recruits and in their influencers in terms of whether or not the military is doing a good job of addressing sexual assault,” she said.

In December, US legislators passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included reforms to the military justice system that would take decisions regarding prosecution for cases of rape and sexual assault out of the hands of military commanders.

However, legislators and activists have said the changes do not meet the scale of the challenge, especially given the widespread lack of faith in the military justice system.

“The watchful eye of Congress is needed to ensure that military leadership is held to account and any additional changes deemed necessary to address this national embarrassment and crisis are made,” said US Representative Jackie Speier, co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

Speier said this week that the survey results were disturbing and she would hold a hearing in the coming weeks for more answers.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies