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Women’s rights in the U.S. Military

American women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq experience substantial prejudice— from fellow soldiers
Bethany Niebauer
Sunday 21 June 2009

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Within the military, women’s rights in general are largely overlooked. Perhaps this is because when anyone joins the military she or he signs away quite a few of their rights. The fact that women lose a few more than men surprises no one – that’s the way it is everywhere. A female helicopter pilot within the army recently told me that her male colleagues often made her feel unwelcome by “forgetting” to make her aware of last minute changes in plans and refusing to sit with her at meal times. A naval officer I spoke with confided that he did not approve of integrated (meaning men and women) crews and attributed higher rates of violence within such integrated crews to “[so many] women with synchronized cycles.”
The military is very fond of parading little tokens of femininity. They point to female mascots such as Molly Pitcher and Margaret Corbin. Being the spouse of a soldier is touted as the “toughest job in the army.” They like the idea of women’s service. They like to toast the spouses at formal dinners and applaud them at deployment ceremonies. Like yellow ribbons on the backs of cars, these gestures mean little. The military is less appreciative of and less willing to accommodate women’s actual service. It is unsurprising to learn that women who serve in the military and female family members of service members have their reproductive rights significantly curtailed. A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy who is tied to the military by marriage or by contract faces restricted access to the choices that were rightfully and legally hers before she got married or signed a contract.

While condoms are widely available for sale (and often given out for free in the Navy), base and post pharmacies are not required to stock emergency contraception and the majority of state side facilities choose not to, to say nothing of overseas installations. Because there is no law requiring that it be available, the choice in this instance is up to the base commander. In places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait emergency contraception is nearly impossible to obtain, while condoms are still relatively easy. The ubiquity of condoms compared to the rarity of emergency contraception is telling. While the military is very interested in protecting its male members from the risks of intercourse, they are clearly less invested in protecting their female members.

Female service members have almost no privacy when it comes to this issue. Pregnancy tests, while easily available stateside, are not reliably available to women serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. If a woman suspects she is pregnant and cannot get a home test she has to go to a medic who will prescribe one and if the results are positive, the medic will inform her chain of command. Whether or not she intends to continue the pregnancy is irrelevant. Pregnant service members who are deployed are immediately sent back to their normal duty stations. (I knew one woman serving in Iraq who took a pregnancy test in the morning, found out it was positive and was on a plane back to the United States that evening.) If she miscarries or terminates the pregnancy she will be sent back to wherever her unit is serving, thus providing plenty of fodder for the military’s incessant rumor mill. She will likely be “slut-shamed” or shamed for making a choice with which her superiors might disagree. This in turn, damages her cohesion with her unit and raises her stress level, which raises her risk for suicide, something the military knows a lot about.

It’s well known that the military has appalling rates of sexual assault particularly for women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a woman living on an army installation, I had a much higher chance of being raped and murdered by my husband than anyone else. According to statistics released by the Department of Defense, the rate of sexual assault rose eight percent worldwide between 2008 and 2009 but rose 26% for women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though alarming, these are just the numbers for reported assaults. According to the Department of Justice, 60% of sexual assaults are unreported. One has to wonder, how many rapes resulted in unwanted pregnancy? How many of those could have been prevented by emergency contraception? Why is the military so unwilling to make it available? Why are they so uninterested in protecting their sisters-in-arms? More importantly, why is the military so slow in creating a safe working environment for women? Why is it so hard?

Abortions in military hospitals cannot be performed except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. If the woman happens to be living or working stateside then she may be able to travel to a civilian provider to have the procedure. However, many military installations are in rural areas that have poor access to reproductive health care services already. Out of the five states with the highest number of military installations, four were given a grade of “D” or lower by NARAL Pro-Choice America regarding the availability of reproductive health care. The difficulties for women do not end there.

If said woman is living or working in one of the many, many overseas installations, she can try to obtain an abortion in that country (if it’s legal and available), or she can travel home, losing time and money in the process. Furthermore, military health insurance only covers abortions performed to save the life of the mother. Rape and incest victims have to pay for any abortions themselves. (On a side note, the military’s health care provider also refuses to cover forensic rape kits.) Abortion is legal for all American women unless that woman is living or working on an American base within a foreign country. It’s a common joke that once you sign the papers to join a service, (or marry a service member), then that service “owns” you. This seems to be more true for women than it is for men. The ability to create life is one of the ways we define “woman,” and the military seems determined to inflict its arbitrary rules upon the lives of the women it owns.


Bethany Niebauer is a U.S.-based blogger and women’s reproductive rights worker. Her husband is in the U.S. military and been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

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