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Women in combat? OK, but what about the sexual assaults?

In a move that surprised many, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a major change to Pentagon policy on Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In a move that surprised many, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a major change to Pentagon policy on Wednesday. He followed up with a press conference Thursday afternoon announcing that, as of 2016, women will be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles. Though women have in practice been serving in artillery, armor, and infantry roles throughout the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the recently-ended war in Iraq, Panetta has decided to reverse the 1994 policy that, on paper, bans them from those roles.

The New York Times reported:

Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions and have increasingly pressured the Pentagon to catch up with the reality on the battlefield. The move comes as Mr. Panetta is about to step down from his post and would leave him with a major legacy after only 18 months in the job.

We should be able to celebrate this policy change as a victory for gender equality. If this country is going to have a state of the art military, if we're going to hold that force up as representing the best of us, then women shouldn't be excluded from serving. Women, as they've proved over and over again on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, can do the work as well as men can, and that should be recognized. Whatever you think of the wars and the armed forces, this should be an egalitarian victory for our women troops. And yet, when a woman in the armed forces has a higher chance of being raped by a fellow servicemember than of being killed by the enemy, it is awfully hard to celebrate.

According to official estimates, 20% of women serving in the United States armed forces will be sexually assaulted while serving their country. In all likelihood, the real figure is larger than that, given low reporting rates. Even if that number is accurate, that's as many as 500,000--half a million--women assaulted since the armed forces began admitting women. I want to repeat that one more time, because I want us to really think about it—half a million women, sexually assaulted. That's about as many people as live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Military sexual violence is an incredibly complicated epidemic—and that is the right word—and one whose reach and consequences are only now beginning to be taken seriously. A lot of that is thanks to the excellent, stomach-churning, Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. As that documentary explains, it is incredibly difficult for women who are raped while serving in the military to report what was done to them, partly because the strict adherence to the chain of command means that they're often expected to report rapes to the very person who assaulted them, or to one of his close colleagues. As a result, thousands of rapes and assaults go unreported, or unpunished, with disastrous consequences for the women whose bodies and dignities are violated.

Just two days after watching a rough cut of The Invisible War, Panetta changed the reporting policies so that the chain of command would be less of a hindrance to those women seeking redress for assault, but that change is hardly enough. Rape and sexual violence still happen at astonishing rates in our armed forces. Fixing the way sexual violence is reported is necessary, of course, and more effective reporting, prosecution, and punishment will hopefully discourage sexual predators. But we'd all rather see the root causes of that violence eliminated altogether.

On the very same day that the Pentagon announced changes to the reporting of sexual assaults, the House Armed Services Committee was hearing testimony about Lackland Air Base in Texas, where 796 sexual assaults were reported in 2012 alone.

At that hearing, lawmakers criticized Air Force brass for failing to do enough to hold perpetrators accountable, thereby fostering a culture in which sexual assault is horrifically common. As the Times reports,

It was unclear why the Joint Chiefs acted now after examining the issue for years, although in recent months there has been building pressure from high-profile lawsuits. [Last November], the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban on behalf of four service women and the Service Women’s Action Network, a group that works for equality in the military.

Advocates for servicewomen’s rights applauded the policy change as an overdue move toward gender equality in the armed forces. They’re certainly right to applaud the broadening of women’s opportunities for career advancement. But it’s hard to ignore the brutal fact: The very same women who will now be allowed to risk their lives for their country will also be asked to risk rape at the hands of their own comrades. Until that changes, we cannot begin to tell ourselves that women in our armed forces enjoy anything resembling equality, lifted combat ban or no.

Chloe Angyal is an editor at Feministing.