Posts Tagged ‘The Invisible War’

When the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign began on November 25 — the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women — one of the first (of many) stories that astounded me concerned the pervasive and disturbing practice of securing “brides” at Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. An article in the Washington Post described how older men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, and even as far as Canada are brokering marriages with vulnerable Syrian women.

“U.N. officials said that most of the marriages are brokered and that many are not consensual. The results, they said, include increasing numbers of child brides and marriages that, in some cases, end in abandonment or forced prostitution. U.N. and Jordanian relief agencies estimate that some 500 underage Syrians have been wed this year.”

This is just one of many examples of injustices against women — which are often disguised as “humanitarian” efforts in response to war — and it highlights the challenges of sexual violence after conflict.

This year’s 16 Days campaign, which is based on the theme “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women,” aims to continue the work done in 2011 to challenge militarism and explore the deep socioeconomic structures that perpetuate gender-based violence. More than 4,000 organizations from 172 countries have participated in the campaign since it launched at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers in 1991. The campaign ends on December 10 — Human Rights Day. These dates were chosen to emphasize that gender-based violence is a violation of human rights. The campaign is successful because of the activism of millions of women and tens of thousands of organizations worldwide that are committed to ending gender-based violence.

The 16 Days campaign is an opportunity to reflect on what everyone can do to hold governments accountable and challenge the structures that allow gender-based violence to continue. Participation in the campaign is a chance to join other advocates to raise awareness about gender-based violence and to add your voice to those of women in other countries and regions who refuse to be silent. Gender-based violence is an issue that impacts all of us at multiple levels, and our governments have a responsibility to respond, protect, and prevent.

AAUW joins Women and Girls LEAD in promoting Women, War, and Peace; Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; and The Invisible War — films showcased in this year’s campaign that amplify the stories of survivors and educate the public about the factors that contribute to violence. Be part of the global movement to end gender-based violence by watching the films, sharing the facts, and taking action.

Want to stay connected and learn more? Visit Women and Girls LEAD, the official 16 Days campaign website, or post and search for events on the campaign calendar.

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National news coverage this month has been dominated by the exposure of the extramarital affair of Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the CIA. But a more intense spotlight has focused not on Petraeus but on his mistress, Paula Broadwell. And it’s been ugly.

Since the affair was uncovered, reporter after reporter has written vivid descriptions — or arguably indictments — of Broadwell’s professional résumé, body, and clothing choices. Is Broadwell a kind-hearted philanthropist or a conniving social climber, they ask. A soccer mom or seductress? Broadwell’s name has been smeared across the front page of every major newspaper, dirtied in what can only be described as scarlet lettering. But as Broadwell’s personal and professional character is ripped apart, Petraeus’ public image remains comparatively intact. These stories expose not her guilt but rather the intensely unequal scrutiny and castigation women receive in response to sexual transgressions.

How did the director of the CIA make such a colossal mistake? When the press tells the story, the answer is clear: He was seduced. For example, Broadwell flaunted her “toned arms” and wore “tight shirts and pants” while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan. By painting a picture of Broadwell’s appealing physique, youth, and confidence, the media tells us that Petraeus was helpless: He simply couldn’t resist cheating on his wife, jeopardizing his career, and endangering the nation.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the media to draw inferences about a woman’s behavior from the way she looks or what she wears. There has been no suggestion that the Petraeus-Broadwell affair was anything but consensual, but the media echoes many of the same narratives that incriminate women on the basis of the amount of makeup they wear or the shortness of their skirts.

On the other hand, the media’s attitude toward Petraeus has been mostly neutral, even sympathetic. As Jezebel’s Lindy West points out, Petraeus is frequently depicted as an “illustrious military man who made a natural, unfortunate but anomalous ‘screw-up.’” According to Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as a top aide to Petraeus, “He had a good relationship with the president and national security team, and he threw that all away … due to a personal failing. He is very, very down right now.” There is no mention of the unequal power dynamic between Petraeus and his mentee and no scrutiny of his looks or his body — although the same cannot be said of his wife. And while many speculate that Petraeus’ career is recoverable, Broadwell’s has been described as nothing short of “toast.”

Though the Petraeus affair has underscored the deep-seated sexism present in contemporary public life, the ensuing media coverage has obscured a more serious issue: the U.S. military’s horrific rape epidemic.On Wednesday, the military will release a report on a sexual abuse scandal that has been called one of the worst in its history. Nearly 50 female recruits have made allegations of sexual misconduct at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The Lackland scandal marks the latest chapter in a long-standing history of sexual abuse. Reports indicate that 1 in 3 military women have been sexually assaulted, including some 19,000 cases in fiscal year 2010 alone.

Yet the discussion of Lackland has been pushed aside in favor of Broadwell’s tight-fitting blouses, and the devastating harm caused by the sexual abuse of military women is left woefully underreported. Ultimately, coverage of the Petraeus affair reveals a trend of the media shaming women rather than supporting them, and it must be stopped.

This post was written by AAUW Media Relations Intern Renee Davidson.

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Sexual assault in the military is a significant problem, one that affects 20 percent of women and 1 percent of men in the armed forces, according to the new documentary The Invisible War. This is an issue of great concern to AAUW, and last week we hosted a private screening of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning movie, which documents the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the military.

During the screening, many of the 50 community leaders in attendance cried after hearing the stories of the brave survivors of sexual assault and rape. The audience voiced outrage over the retaliation the veterans faced and the lack of medical attention they received for injuries relating to the rapes. People were audibly disgusted when the film highlighted the military prevention program — especially the ineffective and inappropriate directives that tell women to go places with a buddy and tell men to “wait until she’s sober.” When the film ended, it was clear to everyone that a lot of change is needed to turn our military from a good one to one that is truly great and safe for all of its service members.

4.26.12 invisible war screening at aauw dc

From left: Klay v. Panetta plaintiff Elle Helmer, The Invisible War producer Amy Ziering, AAUW Executive Director Linda Hallman, and Legal Advocacy Fund Program Manager Holly Kearl

Following the screening, there was a discussion with producer Amy Ziering and Elle Helmer, whose story was featured in the film. Helmer is a plaintiff in one of the two military sexual assault lawsuits that AAUW is supporting through our Legal Advocacy Fund case support program. Thanks to an AAUW Case Support Travel Grant Helmer was also able to speak about the lawsuit and her experiences at the AAUW of Florida state convention last weekend.

Helmer was an officer in the U.S. Marines who served at the prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., from 2005 to 2006. She says she was raped in 2006 in the company commander’s office. As Helmer recounts in The Invisible War, she reported the rape, but her report was never taken seriously, and she faced retaliation. When she wanted to go the hospital for medical help, she was told, “You’re not broken; you’re just dusty. You’ll get into a lot of trouble if you go to the hospital.” Then, after she went to the hospital and had a rape kit done, it was “misplaced.” Her alleged assailant was never charged.

Viewing the film and hearing Helmer’s story and the discussion afterward spurred attendees to want to take action. Fortunately, there are many ways for them — and for you — to get involved.

  1. Visit The Invisible War website, and “like” their Facebook page.
  2. Contact your congressional representatives about the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (the STOP Act), which addresses the structural changes needed in the military.
  3. Attend a showing of The Invisible War in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. The film opens on June 22. If you live in those areas, please plan to attend, and bring as many people with you as you can, especially on opening night. The number of people who attend in the first week will determine if the film will open in other cities, too.
  4. Donate to AAUW to help offset the legal costs of Cioca v. Rumsfeld and Klay v. Panetta, the military sexual assault lawsuits that we’re supporting.

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Plaintiff Ariana Klay speaking at the March 6, 2012 National Press Conference

“You need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. … I can’t babysit you all of the time” was the response a Marine officer gave to Elle Helmer when she reported being raped by another Marine. Helmer was a public information officer at the U.S. Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., and she is one of eight current and former active-duty service members who filed a lawsuit against the military on Tuesday.

The plaintiffs are accusing U.S. military officials of creating a culture in which sexual assault and rape is tolerated and in which people who report it face retaliation. The lawsuit focuses specifically on the U.S. Marine Barracks.

At a National Press Club event on Tuesday, Helmer and Ariana Klay, another plaintiff who is a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq war veteran, courageously shared their stories before a room of journalists.

Klay said that she was gang raped by another Marine and his civilian (but former Marine) friend and then sexually harassed by several officers. Her story illustrates the victim-blaming that many survivors face if they speak out and the lack of initiatives focused on preventing or addressing sexual assault and harassment.

When Klay reported the harassment and rape, she said that she felt like she was the one on trial. She said that, during the investigation, she was told that she must have welcomed the attention by wearing makeup, dressing in regulation-length skirts (as part of her uniform), and exercising in running shorts and tank tops.

One of the rapists was court-martialed but, as often happens in the cases of reported rapes, was convicted of a lesser crime: adultery and indecent language. Nothing happened to the men who harassed her.

The stories of both women are included in the documentary The Invisible War, which won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.

During the Press Club event, several speakers — including the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Susan Burke — talked about the lack of checks and balances within the military structure when it comes to these types of crimes. Survivors must report crimes internally, and they are handled internally instead of by civilian law enforcement or court systems. One outcome the plaintiffs want to see is a change in this structure so that survivors can seek help and justice outside of their military chain of command.

You can help. Contact your congressional representative and ask her or him to support the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act). This pending piece of legislation mandates the kinds of structural changes that the plaintiffs and AAUW want to see.

AAUW Executive Director Linda Hallman spoke at the event, and I’m proud to say that AAUW is offering financial support to both this lawsuit and a similar one that was filed last year, Cioca v. Rumsfeld. We know that speaking out publicly, as Klay, Helmer, and the other plaintiffs are, is critical. And we know that backlash and retaliation can be fierce. We stand with them as they stand for justice.

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