Veterans Decry Lack of Legal Redress for Sexual Harassment in Military

Veterans Decry Lack of Legal Redress for Sexual Harassment in Military


Media Contact:  Nancy Goldfarb, 212-854-1584 [email protected]
Public Affairs Office 212-854-2650 [email protected]
New York, Dec. 14, 2009 - Women in the military carry at least one more piece of equipment than their male counterparts: a "suit of armor" to guard against sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination.

This is the burden Anu Bhagwati, founder of the Service Women's Action Network and daughter of Columbia University professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai, had to bear while serving her country in the Marine Corps.  While one in every six women in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, the rate of abuse doubles for women in the military.  However, according to Bhagwati, non-discrimination and anti-harassment laws that facilitate justice in the United States are not properly enforced in the armed services.

Crimes within the military are handled within the military legal system, Bhagwati explained at a recent panel concerning women at war held at Columbia Law School. The Civil Rights Act's Title VII, which holds employers accountable for sexual harassment, does not apply in military courts.  That means a service member has no recourse if a supervising commander decides to neglect a harassment or assault claim, Bhagwati said.

Also on the panel were Tanya L. Domi, a professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and Cara Hammer from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. Like Bhagwati, they were subject to persistent sexual harassment.

Rejecting the notion that these crimes are sporadic, isolated, and ungovernable, Domi accused military leaders of setting a consensual tone toward the abuse. "Harassment is pernicious and detrimental to a unit," she said. "These women are your mothers, sisters, and daughters, and it is not okay."

Domi enlisted in the Army in the 1970's – before women were allowed to fire weapons in basic training – and was a Captain when she left in 1990.  She spoke of a quiet yet proud sense of patriotism developed in the face of an ongoing battle with sexual discrimination in the military.  "Up here," said Domi, pointing to her head, "I'm still in uniform sometimes."

The panel was co-sponsored by the Columbia Law Women's Association and the Columbia Law School Military Association (CLSMA).  Kate Swearengen, Vice President of the CLSMA, said the panel fulfilled the group’s mission to educate civilian students about the military while serving heightened interested in women at war.
“Recently, the Times ‘Women at Arms’ series and Helen Benedict’s article in the Columbia University Alumni Magazine have attracted a lot of attention,” Swearengen says, referring to a series run in The New York Times and an essay in the Spring 2009 issue of Columbia Magazine entitled “Betrayal in the Field” by Columbia Journalism School Professor Helen Benedict.
“I think that fundamentally, this event did a very good job of educating members of the Law School community by exposing them to ideas and perspectives they hadn't encountered before.”
The Service Women's Action Network, which Bhagwati founded and currently directs, is a non-profit, non-partisan organization working to improve the welfare of current U.S. servicewomen and assist women veterans.  Hammer’s organization, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, is dedicated to supporting the troops and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins its traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, criminal, national security, and environmental law.

 Written by Christopher Gomes