On June 14, the Senate voted 85 to 13 to pass a defense authorization bill which would require women to register for Selective Service. But in a military landscape rife with sexual violence, this step toward women’s full equality under the law seems short-sighted and even irresponsible.
2016 marked the first year the U.S. military allowed women in combat roles. Back in February, we reported the introduction of a bill by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) which sought women’s inclusion in the draft. The Senate has reviewed the bill, and seems to be of the opinion that if women are fit to fill combat positions, there’s no real reason to exclude them from Selective Service registration.
The two Republican representatives have stated they oppose the inclusion of women to combat roles, but feel it’s only fair that our country consider the impact of this change, saying at the time of the House bill introduction, “If this administration wants to send 18-20 year old women into combat, to serve and fight on the front lines, then the American people deserve to have this discussion through their elected representatives.”
The legislation, which approved government defense spending, must still go through an extensive review process before coming law: The House reviewed its own version of the bill earlier this year and after some deliberation passed an authorization which omitted it. The House and Senate must now attempt to reconcile the differences between the two versions. At that point, the agreed bill would then face the possibility of a presidential veto.
It’s encouraging to read that Congress is focused on attaining women’s equality. (As eagerly as they acted to rectify the inequality of the Selective Service Act, one would think it’d be simple enough to enforce already-existent bills which prohibit sex-based wage discrimination and champion equal rights for women, right?) But in some ways, this legislation effectively erases that women in the military are working in the midst of a rape culture crisis—and thusly would put more women at risk.
Over 20% of active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted while serving, making these women more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than shot by enemy fire. (The 20% statistic reflects cases which were reported, leaving the number of unreported occurrences to be anyone’s guess.) Though the dangers facing women in the military are clearly known, they have continued to take a backseat to issues deemed more pressing—including defense spending. A 2015 U.N. Council urged the U.S. military to work to “prevent sexual violence in the military and ensure effective prosecution of offenders and redress for victims.” Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has tried for three years to get an amendment passed which would change the way military sexual assault cases are handled. Yet little has actually been done by Congress to address these ongoing issues.
Until action is taken to keep the women serving in our nation’s military free from sexual assault and rape, they will never be equal members of the armed forces. And although the draft’s inclusion of women appears to signal a changing attitude toward gender norms in the military, this legislation isn’t the most important step toward full-scale gender equality for women within it. The military sexual assault epidemic makes it evident that women are not treated the same as men even as they serve our country, and that epidemic makes Mandatory Selective Service registration for women patently reckless.