Two major topics have been hitting the headlines concerning women in the military: women’s rights to serve on the front lines in battle and the ever present issue of sexual assault in the military. In addition, students have recently been discussing these issues at the U.Va. Women’s Center

The Women’s Center recently had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Army Major and Associate Professor Sarah Sykes at an event on April 9 at OpenGrounds, as well as Denise Walsh, Associate Professor of Politics and of Women, Gender and Sexuality at U.Va., and U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Hanrahan regarding these issues.

Shanice Hardy

Shanice Hardy

Shanice Hardy, intern in the Diversity and Advocacy program at the Women’s Center, organized the event after having seen the film “An Invisible War” in one of her classes.  She said that seeing the various stories and perspectives in this film prompted her to plan this event.

At the event, Major Sykes said the army has had a 51 percent increase in the number of reported sexual assaults this year, though this number does not represent an increase in assaults, but rather an increase in the number of reported assaults.  She also mentioned that this is partially due to the fact that “the command climate is changing to where victims now feel that they can come forward.”

Women serving on the front lines:

Recent legislation has made major strides for women in the military, but has also raised some important issues to be considered.  Women are now able to fight on the front lines, a role that has historically been reserved for men.  This is a huge step for women in the military, as it allows for them to move up to the highest echelons of the military.  LTC Hanrahan comments that “you look at a soldier as a soldier” and “[he] just [believes] that you promote or provide jobs based off of merit alone.”  He argues that gender is irrelevant to this issue (or at least it should be).

Despite the obvious benefits of this legislation, there has been a bit of backlash from the public. Some argue that women on the front lines could potentially be a distraction to men, a claim that perpetuates the stereotype that women need to be protected by men, according to Walsh.  She believes that eliminating this stereotype is very important in developing a higher level of respect for women in the army, as well as women in the general population.

Sexual assault in the military:

The criticism that women might be a distraction to men in the military also broaches on another important topic: that of sexual assault.  The statistics for sexual assault in the military are staggeringly high – even higher than the statistics for sexual assault within the general public.  In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault in the armed forces. Of these 26,000 cases, 25 percent of women and 27 percent of men affected said that the offender was someone in their military chain of command. Studies have shown that many victims do not report assault because they believe that nothing will come of it. Walsh commented that this is often in part because the offender is higher in rank than the victim, and the reporting process is difficult in itself.

In an effort to change these shocking statistics, the Military Justice Improvement Act was created in 2013. Walsh emphasizes the fact that this is an institutional problem, as “sometimes the person who is in charge, or in command, could be the person who’s also committing the offense and then that’s the person who then decides whether or not any adjudication should happen.”  Based on this information, she states that the reporting and judiciary processes must be formalized.

At last week’s event, Sykes discussed the policy changes surrounding these issues, Hardy commented that “before the event, taking power away from the commander seemed like the way to fix the issue, but after the event, [she] started to realize how harmful it could be as well.” She added that taking power away would undermine an army commander’s authority and could be detrimental in obtaining rape convictions later.

Looking toward the future:

Hannah Menefee, who attended the event as well as the Events Coordinator for the Diversity and Advocacy program at the Women’s Center, said that “listening to Major Sarah Sykes changed a lot of [her] perspectives on the military” and that she “learned that military culture, especially the problems they face, are not all that different from the problems we face both inside and outside of the U.Va. community.”

This is an important point to keep in mind, as these issues are everywhere, and do not only affect those in uniform. Though these situations seem grim, both Walsh and LTC Hanrahan were optimistic for the future. Hanrahan believes that society is on the right track and that discussing these issues is key to eventually finding a solution.

By: Lindley Smith