The Pentagon on Thursday announced a sweeping new policy aimed at tackling sexual harassment, bullying, and other abuses that have plagued the U.S. military in recent years.
Advocates say the policy is a “start” but requires urgent action to effect real change in the ranks.
The policy, entitled “Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces,” offers a broad condemnation of harassment in the ranks, targeting everything from hazing to offensive jokes to sexual assault. It mandates that each branch of the military individually issues its own guidance within 60 days.
The military has faced a series of harassment scandals in recent years, from Parris Island to Marines United. The data tells a similarly dire story. One in four women and one in five men experienced “severe and persistent sexual harassment or gender discrimination” in 2016, according to the non-governmental organization Protect our Defenders. Nearly 15,000 service members were sexually assaulted that same year, according to DOD data.
The Government Accountability Office in December released a report on the DOD’s efforts to combat sexual violence, finding among other flaws, that the DOD had not “established standard data elements and definitions to guide the services in maintaining and reporting data on sexual harassment.”
The new policy adheres to at least one of the GAO’s recommendations, which is to include a process of anonymous reporting for sexual harassment across all branches. In December, neither the Office of the Secretary of Defense, nor the Army, nor the Marine Corps included anonymous reporting in their policies.
“Harassment is part of a continuum of behaviors that have no place in our workforce. The policy issued today brings us one step closer to eliminating these behaviors from the Department of Defense. My focus on this is unwavering,” Robert L. Wilkie, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a statement.
The policy is welcomed by advocates, but they remain skeptical about whether it will be implemented effectively.
“It’s all well and good to have policies, but until there is deep-rooted culture change within the military, this is simply a piece of paper,” said Erin Cuomo, a founder of #NotInMyMarineCorps, a group of active-duty and veteran female Marines started in the aftermath of the Marines United scandal.
“I hope they have finally gotten the message with Me Too Military and will truly step up and hold all offenders truly accountable and work to change the underlying cultural issues which are the foundation this behavior is built on,” Cuomo added.
Capt. Lory Manning, the director of government relations for Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), offered a bit of cautious optimism.
“It's a good start," Manning said. "But that all it is, a start.”
Cover image: U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers march on Fifth Avenue during the annual New York City Veterans Day Parade in New York, NY, U.S., November 11, 2017. (Hector Rene Membreno-Canales/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS)