One in four women in uniform serving in an unhealthy command climate experienced some form of unwanted sexual conduct in FY 2021, according to senior defense officials who recently briefed military and veterans groups with disappointing news from the annual report on sexual harassment and assault for 2021.
Overall, 19,255 servicewomen reported unwanted sexual contact in FY 2021 – a 13% increase from last year It is a difficult number to reconcile as Congress will soon debate a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) provision for inclusion of women in the Selective Service System.
“These are the highest rates since we started recording it,” a senior defense official told representatives of MOAA and other organizations.
The news comes while DoD works to implement the 82 recommendations from last year’s Independent Review Commission (IRC) on sexual harassment and assault. The problems have gotten worse, and only continued leadership focus, improved resources, and prioritization will correct the troubling trend.
Where’s the Accountability?
Commanders are trained that the purpose of military justice is good order and discipline and deterrence of misconduct. Timely outcomes are critical to support deterrence, and last year’s IRC found some investigations could last up to a year due to undermanned and under-resourced investigators and prosecutors.
While investigations are pending, commanders and victims are stuck in limbo, and that erodes trust. The worsening trends require investment in improving the climate of trust, with only 39% of women servicemembers saying they trust the reporting system, compared to 66% in 2018.
DoD has made significant changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to arm commanders with the ability to improve accountability. Sexual harassment in now a punishable offense. The report indicates nonjudicial punishment rates for substantiated incidents of assault increased from 22% in FY 2020 to 31% in FY 2021, and 72% of court-martial involving sexual assault ended in conviction (of sexual assault or another offense), compared to 61% in 2020.
Planned personnel and resource improvements supporting judicial prosecution for assault and prevention will take time to resource and implement. Further investment is planned for a professional prevention workforce across the services. The president’s FY 2023 budget request includes $940 million for sexual harassment and assault prevention programs, and investing in personnel is called for.
Congress has yet to finalize the FY 2023 NDAA, where investment in personnel can impact the problems our overstretched forces face.
You can follow more on how the NDAA will affect our servicemembers at MOAA’s Advocacy News page.
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