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Female Soldiers Have a Plan B

News & Features | March 7, 2010

US Department of Defense

All of us probably know someone who has taken Plan B (levonorgestrel), better known as the morning-after pill. Available in hospitals, pharmacies, and college health services across the country, Plan B is instrumental in protecting women from becoming pregnant after a forgetful night, a condom mishap, or even a sexual assault, It is such a common medical treatment in our culture(especially on college campuses) that it comes as a shock to many that the morning-after pill was not available to female soldiers on military bases until just a month ago.

Surprisingly, Plan B’s accessibility to female soldiers has only recently been approved. Currently, Iraq sets the record for the highest amount of interaction among American women and men in the combat zones. While one would expect this to foster camaraderie among the ranks, many cases point to the contrary. Studies conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs reveal that 30% of all women serving in the military are raped, 71% are assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed at the hands of fellow soldiers. How are these devastating numbers possible in a military that now relies on women more than ever to be safe and successful in Iraq?

Professor Paul Joseph, a Tufts Sociology Professor, discloses an interesting theory explaining the staggering amount of assault during wartime. “There are two types of violent culture,” he said. “One is a violent culture which is legal, and the other culture of men assaulting women is illegal, but the terms legal and illegal don’t allow us to see how those two systems of violence overlap. A sociological perspective would be to say that the systems of violence are interrelated. The perpetration of violence in one setting allow for the perpetuation of violence in the other.”

A report released last year by the Government Accountability Office found that as little as 10% of victims report sexual assault, which is extremely low compared to the amount of reports by civilians. These disparities indicate the negative implications of the military’s ”just deal with it’’ mentality.

Studies also show how women feel that, in comparison to the casualties and injuries the military confronts everyday, their cases of sexual abuse simply do not mount to the same magnitude of importance. But if the government relies on the presence of women in the military, it is time it holds itself accountable to the protection of female soldiers on US military bases.

Many victims even thought that no substantial response would be executed had they reported sexual assault. Sadly, many cases prove these suspicions right; often, the only action taken is a transfer or honorable discharge of the victim.

Thus far, the military has enacted only basic measures to address female assault. Officials have distributed kits to collect forensic evidence of rape or sexual assault and have provided confidential counselors to whom victims can go without having to make an official report of abuse. But, while pamphlets promoting this new system decorate walls in many camps, these initiatives are vastly counteracted by several commanders’ skepticism of the validity of forensic kits and the foundations of many accusations.

Recently, the government approved the dispersal of the morning-after pill on military bases. Passed on February 4, 2010 by the Department of Defense on the recommendation of the Pentagon, this controversial decision has sparked a highly publicized political debate regarding the touchy topic of abortion. Right-wing politicians claim that the initiative is simply a platform for those on the left to spread pro-choice propaganda and push for legalizing abortion. Those on the left claim that emergency contraception is an essential component of the government’s responsibility for troops and should thus be offered openly to female soldiers.

However, the question should not be whether the military’s actions are loyal to political ideologies but whether or not our government can be loyal to the protection of our military personnel. Perhaps this decision can finally empower female soldiers to come forward about the sexual abuse they have suffered on military grounds.

Joseph emphasizes that, despite the merits of Plan B, the problem of assault extends past simple solutions and into fundamental issues of gender inequality in the military. “Plan B reflects a situation that is messy, and it’s a way of limiting the damage, but it doesn’t really address the underlying issues of what is equality between men and women in this situation,” said Joseph. “It’s a way of everyone agreeing to look the other way about rules about fraternization, combat zones, and between inequalities of rank. It does not grapple with the underlying issue.”

Shocking accounts of many female soldiers reveal the need to address the imbalances that remain at the heart of victimization. Some women say they refuse to go out to the latrines at night for fear of being assaulted. One female soldier even refused to drink water during the day because the fountains were so far; she ate Skittles to keep her mouth from drying up and, as a result, ended up collapsing from dehydration several times. In another account, when asked how she dealt with her own case of rape, the victim referred to the popular military mentality of “Drive on.”

Access to Plan B should serve as a mere stepping-stone for further policy implementations regarding sexual behavior in the military. It should represent the beginning of a much-needed attempt to eradicate the injustices females face in military zones. “What is not there is the respect for female soldiers,” said Joseph. “As long as the respect for women remains incomplete, you have a dynamic that underscores violence. “

As this nation relies more and more on women who are willing to serve, it needs to take a firmer stance on the policies concerning the abuse these women face. This should be the essence of “Drive on.”