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Can’t silence cases. As more women join, Indian military must address sexual assault problem

A primary concern of the public and military fraternity about women in the armed forces has been torture and rape at the hands of the enemy. But what about colleagues?

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The Supreme Court opened the way for direct commission of women into the armed forces through the National Defence Academy in September. Last year, the court in its benchmark judgment on 17 February, had brought Short Service Commission women officers at par with their male colleagues in the Indian Army for permanent commission consideration and command in all arms and services, less fighting arms—infantry/mechanised infantry/armoured corps—and artillery.

Women have also been inducted in small numbers in the Corps of Military Police and the Assam Rifles in other ranks. They have already been inducted as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy has accepted, in principle, to allow them to serve on ships/submarines. It is only a matter of time before women achieve absolute parity with males for all roles in the armed forces.

As the young women of India march forward to conquer the final frontier, the armed forces will be confronted with the problem of sexual assault and harassment of women. The experience of other militaries has shown that this societal problem manifests itself more acutely in the armed forces due to male “warrior culture” that does not accept women as equals. In my view, men and women aged 20-40 living, training, and fighting in close proximity is also a major factor. In fact, sexual offences against women, as a percentage, is the highest among all crimes in militaries with much higher percentage of women.

Are our armed forces prepared to handle this looming problem? Recently an Indian Air Force woman officer in her police complaint alleged rape by a colleague, non-responsive attitude of her superiors and being subjected to the banned “two-finger” test. It is obvious that our authorities are ill-prepared to handle such allegations and cases.

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A worldwide problem

Our experience of women in the armed forces is largely restricted to the officer corps, beginning in 1992. Only limited numbers have been inducted in other ranks from 2020. As a percentage, women officers constitute 0.56, 1.08 and 6.5 per cent of total strength of the Army, Air Force and Navy respectively. With respect to only the officers’ cadre, as per my calculation, it is 14-16 per cent approximately for the Army, and 13 per cent each for the Air Force and Navy.

In contrast, women constitute 10 to 20 per cent of the entire strength of the armed forces in most Western militaries with the US at the top with 18-20 per cent. Sexual assault and harassment in the armed forces have been a major issue in these countries. Despite a much longer experience, these countries are still refining the rules, regulations, and law, apart from bringing about a cultural change, to maintain discipline and safeguard women both from psychological and physical assault.

One of the first actions of US President Joe Biden was to order a “90-Day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military”. The Commission, chaired by Lynn Rosenthal, was charged with conducting “an independent, impartial assessment” of the military’s current treatment of sexual assault and sexual harassment. It is pertinent to note that to avoid the “military mindset”, the commission comprised 12 experts from outside the department of defence/military “with experience in the fields of civilian criminal justice, victim advocacy, policy and program development for sexual violence prevention and response, public health, and research.” This commission has been preceded by many such studies and commissions, including directions from the Senate. Despite an elaborate system of education, prevention, response, and support to handle sexual assault and harassment, this commission was considered necessary due to the rising number of cases.

The commission noted that since 2010, roughly 135,000 service personnel – 65,400 women and 69,600 men – have been sexually assaulted, and about 509,000 – 223,000 women and 286,000 men – have experienced sexual harassment. In 2018, sexual assault prevalence increased by 44 per cent among women. More than 20,000 service members were the victims of sexual assault that year (13,000 women and 7,500 men) alone. Yet only, 8,000 reported assault. One in every four women service personnel faced sexual harassment. The commission observed with dismay that “military leadership has failed America’s daughters and sons, and the Service members know it.”

The commission has made far-reaching recommendations for changes in education, prevention, response, support and military justice system to handle sexual assault and harassment cases. Similar commission and studies have been carried out in other militaries. A common theme has been that the existing system is below par to handle sexual assault and harassment. “A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire,” said California Representative Jane Harman, who in 2008 introduced a bill “to increase and encourage the investigation of prosecution of sexual assault and rape cases in the military”.

I highlighted the experience and approach of the advanced militaries to emphasise the need for our armed forces to radically reform in this field.

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Time is running out for Indian military

As mentioned earlier, so far, our experience has been limited to women officers who occupy a relatively privileged position in the military. The data regarding sexual assault and harassment is not in the public domain. The cases reported in the media were mostly of rape, sexual assault and harassment by superiorscolleagues and, at times, by subordinates. There have been a number of cases of false allegations too by women officers.

Considering the universal phenomena of underreporting of such cases, it is my view that many such cases go unreported. There is also a tendency on part of commanders to hush up the cases to cover up leadership failures and safeguard unit/organisational reputation. The armed forces have been notorious for cover-up of the rampant sexual assault and harassment cases of young male recruits and soldiers. Women have only added a new dimension. “Silencing” is a unique military phenomenon. As an Army Commander, in a clear cut case of sexual assault on a junior Woman Officer, I ordered the prosecution of a Major General. The Army Chief rang me up advising a rethink because the reputation of the Army would suffer. I remained steadfast and the officer was dismissed from service.

The Army Act has no specific provisions for dealing with cases of sexual assault and harassment. Also, most inquiries are done in-house and lack credibility. Military justice system does not follow the guidelines laid by the Supreme Court. There is an urgent need for the military to radically overhaul its investigation, victim support and military justice system particularly with respect to sexual assault and harassment. There is also a need for independent overwatch from outside the military with respect to sexual assault and harassment.

The government must immediately order an empowered commission on the lines of the US Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military and based on its recommendations, order reforms. The military too must rise to the occasion before events overtake it once a large number of women are inducted. One of the primary concerns of the public, media and serving/retired military fraternity regarding induction of women in the armed forces has been torture and rape at the hands of the enemy when taken prisoner of war.  In my view, the bigger problem on hand is how to safeguard their bodies and minds from superiors, colleagues and subordinates.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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