Women have served in the military from times immemorial, ranging from Egypt’s Queen Ahhotep I and Joan of Arc to modern times, where women increasingly joined the military during the World Wars. Women were traditionally given support roles as medics and technicians. Lately, they have been inducted into combat roles.
Life for women in the frontlines is challenging. While a few women are happy about the degree of wholehearted assimilation they experience in units, many remain bitter about the amount of struggle they need to undergo to prove they are as good as men. Fears of being sexually assaulted and the stresses of battle scar women emotionally.
Sexual harassment remains a bane for women in the military. Unlike civilian counterparts, women in the military complaining against sexual harassment have to depend upon the military justice system for redress. Women can render formal and informal complaints against sexual harassment. While military justice laws in dealing with sexual harassment cases have become stricter, there is further scope in removing legal loopholes and aligning senior officers’ attitudes to usher in greater sensitivity and justice to sexual harassment cases.
Since times immemorial, war has been an integral part of the human existence. Traditionally, combat has been an essentially male preserve. Psychologists and historians have often explained the propensity of men for war to ‘predator instinct’, ‘propensity for violence’ and ‘cultural traditions’ (Hermann and Palmeiri 19). However, women have had their share of roles in battle. Queen Ahhotep I of Egypt, Chinese military leader Fu Hao, British queen Boudica and Zenobia, queen of Palmyra led armies. Joan of Arc was a famous general. However, women in the military remained more of exceptions than the norm till the World Wars. Increased male conscriptions and casualties led to women being inducted mainly in the medical and support systems of the military. They took actual part in the fighting as part of resistance movements in Vietnam and Sri Lanka (Hermann and Palmeiri).
As the US military is the largest in the world, setting trends in social and technological aspects, the course of women in the military can be illustrative through the US military experience. Women were granted permanent status in the US military in 1948. The military draft for males ended in 1973, creating opportunities for women. The first females were admitted in the service academies in 1976. Women remained confined to non-combat roles as technicians, nurses and officers. The Congress authorized women to fly combat missions in 1991, and to serve on combat ships in 1993 (History). The last bastion reserved for males, combat roles in the army, was officially lifted for women in the US military in 2013 (Harris). Today, more than 16,000 women are serving in the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Germany, Japan and other areas (History).
Life on the Frontlines
Women face a challenging time in their lives on the frontlines. Being in a minority, they continue to remain standard-bearers of their gender, and remain keen to prove that women can be equal partners to men in war. This motivation remains their bulwark as they share privations and challenges with men in units on the battlefield. However, their experiences in military units are mixed. According to Sgt Becci Taylor, women share privations like lack of food and water equally with men. In most units, they are exposed to hazards just like the menfolk. Life in a military unit inures women from thinking too much about their gender, and instead a sense of belonging and care for others in the unit takes shape. There is little privacy for women. Men are equally embarrassed as women at the lack of privacy, but they learn to live with the situation. While the women are treated as equals, an element of chauvinism exists, with men taking on the relatively heavier loads for carrying (Beck).
In contrast to Sgt Becci’s account, other women report that perceptions about women being the weaker sex remain. Males are deemed more competent till women prove otherwise. Women struggle to blend in with the men by removing characteristics of their feminity. They perforce need to be alert to repel sexual advances. The fear of being sexually assaulted by comrades and the enemy alike proves to be demeaning and demoralizing to women. Constant attrition of the nerves in battle affects women more, as they have to bottle up their emotions in the field (Minsberg).
Sexual Harassment in the Military
While women try to make the best of their opportunities in serving in the military, the fact remains that women remain in a minority in a male dominated preserve. Instances of sexual assault have been reported from militaries the world over. To provide a suitable context to sexual assault against women in the military, it is essential to appreciate various dynamics at play in military units. Male bonding is the bedrock for unit life, an aspect where the presence of women can be seen as an unwelcome intrusion. The military unit remains command oriented- the military unit obeys the command structure to the limit of worship and the unit itself is seen as an institution to be defended at all costs, rightly or wrongly. In this context, any report of sexual harassment by women tends to be hushed up at unit levels (Hannagan, Arrow, and Orbell).
Cases of sexual harassment in the US military have been increasing. Studies indicate that large proportions of women have experienced sexual harassment while in service: ranging from 75% in the Marines to 57% in the Air Force (Sagawa and Campbell). Restrictive laws in the units exacerbate the situation. With women denied most frontline roles, the tribal reaction in the military remains that ‘women don’t belong’ (Sagawa and Campbell). Legal restrictions limiting the number of women in military units have ensured that women remain in the minority, resulting in atmospheres hostile to women. With fewer women in senior positions, enforcement of sexual harassment policies remains in male hands that often do not take the problem seriously (Sagawa and Campbell).
Sexual Harassment Cases- Reporting and Military Justice System
Uniformed military personnel must rely upon internal military channels to obtain redress in all matters, including cases of sexual harassment. Often, there are no clear procedures to deal with sexual harassment cases. Women have no right to project their case to an independent decision-maker, as the chain of command is the primary channel for investigating all cases. A woman who has suffered from sexual harassment may initiate an ‘informal procedure’ by reporting the harassment to her superior. The superior would further report the matter to the commanding officer. Alternatively, the woman can approach the commanding officer with her grievance. If not satisfied with the outcome, the woman can seek a review by the Inspector General of the Command. Formally, the woman can file a ‘complaint of wrong’ under Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) (Sagawa and Campbell).
With increasing focus on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the military, more punitive provisions have been incorporated in the UCMJ. Perpetrators of sexual assault can now be tried by courts-martial. The military justice system of allowing evidence of the accused’s good military character often mitigates the charge of sexual harassment and allows many to go scot-free (Schenck).
Uproar against the sexual harassment cases has ushered in reform. Women would now be given access to their own military lawyers in cases of sexual harassment, and could also seek a transfer from the base. Those convicted can now be either dismissed or dishonorably discharged from the military. Despite the newer rules, cases of favoritism abound amongst senior commanders adjudicating upon sexual harassment cases (Draper).
Women have served in the military in small numbers since times immemorial. Their numbers have increased rapidly since the World Wars. Women have initially been given support roles in the military, and have recently graduated to combat roles. Their proportion in the military remains restricted, and they remain the target of sexual harassment worldwide. Military law enjoins women’s complaints about sexual harassment to be treated within the military justice system. Erstwhile laxity in dealing with sexual harassment cases is diminishing, with stricter laws put in place. However, there is further scope in removing legal loopholes and aligning senior officers’ attitudes to usher in greater sensitivity and justice to sexual harassment cases.
Beck, Sally. “ ‘I’d be Lying if I Said I Didn’t Think About Dying’: Female Soldier Describes Life on the Frontline.” Mirror.co.uk. March 21, 2013. Web. July 08, 2015.
Draper, Robert. “The Military’s Rough Justice on Sexual Assault.” NYTimes.com. Nov 26, 2014. Web. July 08, 2015.
Hannagan, Rebecca J., Holly Arrow, and John Orbell. “Reengineering Gender Relations.” Manuscript. NIU.edu. n.d. Web. July 08, 2015.
Harris, Paul. “Women in Combat: US Military Officially Lifts Ban on Female Soldiers.” TheGuardian.com. Jan 25, 2013. Web. July 08, 2015.
Herrmann, Irène, and Daniel Palmeiri. “Between Amazons and Sabines: A Historical Approach to Women and War.” International Review of the Red Cross 92/877: 19-30. 2010. Web. July 08, 2015.
History. “Time Line: Women in the US Military.” History.org. n.d. Web. July 08, 2015.
Minsberg, Tanya. “Women Describe their Struggles with Gender Roles in Military.” NYTimes.com. May 24, 2015. Web. July 08, 2015.
Sagawa, Shirley, and Nancy Duff Campbell. “Sexual Harassment of Women in the Military.” NWLC.org. 1992. Web. July 08, 2015.
Schenck, Lisa M. “Sex Offences Under Military Law: Will the Recent Changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Re-traumatize Sexual Assault Survivors in the Courtroom?” Working Draft. ResponseSystemsPanel.WHS.mil. 2014. Web. July 08, 2015.