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Four women leaders on transformations in their fields.


A woman’s place: Female soldiers from India serve in a U.N. peacekeeping unit.(AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Gender Parity in Uniform

The solution to sexual-abuse scandals is not to segregate and circumscribe women. It’s the opposite.

By Anu Bhagwati


The recent scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where 11 instructors have been charged with rape, sexual assault, or sexual misconduct involving at least 31 female recruits, is the latest example of the U.S. military’s problem with sexual predators in the ranks. Sexual assaults—more than 19,000 per year, according to the Defense Department—have devastated victims and shamed the military for decades. Gen. Edward Rice, responsible for basic training of all Air Force personnel, even fell back on a dodge used by other military commanders facing sexual-assault crises: He told reporters that one solution he was entertaining would segregate the training of male and female recruits. (If we separate and protect our female troops, they will be spared the abuses committed by their male counterparts, this thinking goes.)

The idea doesn’t just reek of a paternalism and a sexism that works against both sexes. It also won’t fix the problem, because segregated training environments still experience high rates of sexual assault. To truly end rape, weed out sexual predators, and professionalize the force, the United States needs to take a much more serious look at the roles women play in global military and security operations—and adapt its force to meet the needs of an increasingly insecure and interconnected planet. This will mean increasing leadership responsibilities and frontline assignments for women throughout the armed forces.

The first case study comes from the U.N., which created predominantly or all-female peacekeeping units as a way to minimize the many sexual assaults committed by blue helmets against local women and girls around the globe. This plan has had tremendously positive results for global security, and—as a much welcome side effect—for the U.N.’s reputation. Last year, I had the good fortune to meet Rockfar Sultana Kahanam, then the commander of the Bangladesh Female Formed Police Unit, a mostly female peacekeeping force providing post-earthquake security in Haiti. Rockfar told me that all of her officers were women and that her unit was well liked and respected, in large part because the Haitian people tended to trust her female peacekeepers.


Indeed, women’s participation in security operations, especially in leadership positions, helps and elevates everyone involved: Local trust in foreign security providers increases; sexual assaults committed against local women and girls decrease; female peacekeepers get critical experience that they can institutionalize into best practices for the U.N.; and women become key participants in security discussions, allowing them to influence global outcomes over time.

Lest we think of the U.N. as too soft an institution for comparison, let’s also take a look at lessons learned from counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the need to respect local cultural norms about gender, American women have been exposed to ground combat unthinkable to previous generations of women in uniform. Women have filled a need not only in humanitarian efforts and civil-affairs capabilities (winning “hearts and minds”) but have also worked alongside special operators and infantrymen. They have the combat-heroism awards to show for it.

In many cases, Afghan villagers have been more likely to trust, open up to, and reveal intelligence to the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Teams than to their male counterparts. These FET Marines have been so successful in U.S. operations in Afghanistan that our NATO allies followed suit by deploying similar teams of their own.

The global potential here is endless. Security contractors, also accused of criminal activity overseas ranging from sexual assault to murder of civilians, could professionalize their forces and potentially reap a profit from the local demand for women as security providers. And don’t overlook the pervasive sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of women and girls by service members, defense contractors, U.N. personnel, and commercial security workers worldwide, which have prompted congressional investigations, major media coverage, and even an executive order by former President George W. Bush that made “patronizing a prostitute” illegal under military law. Continuing scandals like the one involving Secret Service and military personnel earlier this year in Cartagena, Colombia, illustrate a deeply entrenched problem. Women’s increased presence in security operations would minimize the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women, girls, and boys by global security forces.


When sexual assault pervades a military institution, a large part of the solution lies in normalizing the presence of women in uniform and increasing their leadership opportunities. This can only be done by drastically increasing the numbers of women entering the military, exposing uniformed men to uniformed women at all ranks, and opening up assignments currently closed to women, as many of our allies (such as Australia and Canada) have already done. America’s military leadership needs to start thinking differently now, or we can expect to see many more Lacklands.

This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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