01/29/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

How the Military Can Lead the Way on Ending Sexual Assault

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.

In 1948, well ahead of the Civil Rights Movement that would divide America in the decades to follow, President Harry Truman announced an executive order ending the racial segregation of the American military. It took three years, but that single action by our commander in chief, the leader of our fighting forces, positioned the American military ahead of the curve on race relations in the United States. Truman's actions illustrated two important points: first, that the military has the power to lead the American public when it comes to cultural change; and second, that a good leader has the ability to transform the way the military operates.

Now, the military has the opportunity to herald a new wave of social innovation, this time in regards to the national discourse around rape. And a new wave of military leaders could be the catalyst.

In 2011, military officials received 3,192 sexual assault reports. But the Department of Defense estimates that 86 percent of sexual assaults in the military go unreported all together. Working off of these numbers and those generated by similar government studies has led to conservative estimates that one in five women in the military are survivors of rape -- one in five. And less than 2 percent of the perpetrators of these assaults face any type of punishment for their crimes.

These numbers are shocking and unconscionable. And the toll these crimes take on our service members, their loved ones, and society at large is devastating and epic in scope and is well documented in our Academy Award-nominated film, The Invisible War.

But unlike most social ills, this is one that the military could quite effectively vanquish. Taking some swift and decisive actions -- namely, prosecuting perpetrators and more seriously approaching sexual assault prevention during training -- could greatly reduce the numbers of military sexual assaults.

This past week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat, and the House Armed Services Committee held a major hearing on sexual assault at Lackland Air Force Base - positive signs that things are beginning to change.

Some, though, have misguidedly responded to our investigative expose (and the pragmatic solutions it proposes) by claiming that the epic number of assault crimes points to the need to re-segregate our forces, and again bar women from serving. We believe facts demonstrate just the opposite. The answer is more women in the ranks, not less -- and Panetta's decision to open up combat to women, which in turn creates hundreds of thousands of new jobs for them, is especially significant for this reason.

Numerous sociological studies have demonstrated that once any minority reaches a certain critical mass, it ceases to be as easily marginalized, discriminated against and victimized. Currently women make up only 14 percent of our armed forces. The proliferation of assaults points to the need to add more women to our military ranks, not less, and promote more women to positions of significant leadership. Once female populations reach a critical mass, the likelihood of their falling prey to sexist and violent behavior is greatly reduced.

What's more, increasing the number of women in the ranks would shift the culture of the military dramatically for the better. As studies repeatedly demonstrate, women, for a variety of reasons, have different leadership strengths. Women leaders tend to have more empathy and are more likely to collaborate.

Aren't all of these qualities we would want in any leader -- male or female -- considering that in the military, good leadership can be a matter of life or death? And as far as sexual assaults are concerned, such traits would indubitably create a climate less conducive to fostering assault crimes, and more supportive of the care and rehabilitation of survivors.

In April of last year, when Secretary Panetta announced new measures to end sexual assault in the military, he took the first step toward ending this epidemic. In June, the Armed Services took another big step when Air Force General Janet Wolfenbarger became the second woman in history to rise to the rank of four-star general. General Wolfenbarger is following a path blazed by Army General Ann Dunwoody, who, prior to stepping down this summer from her position as Commanding General, U.S. Army Material Command, was the highest-ranking woman in military history. Despite great odds, these two women have managed to rise to the highest ranks in our armed services forging a path for others and setting an admirable example for all service women.

Military leadership is under particular scrutiny following the ignominious resignation of CIA chief Ret. Gen. David Petraeus last year, due to inappropriate behavior. Gen. Petraeus' fall seems all the harder because reverence of leaders is engrained in military service. When you trust a leader to send you into battle, a particular level of respect develops. This is just one in a series of issues with military leaders, sexual misconduct, and abuse allegations that emerged last year. It is clear that the military is in desperate need of a new infusion of leadership -- and if women played a role in this changing of the guard, we could herald in a radical change in the experience of women in the ranks. By allowing women to ascend to the positions of leadership in the military more frequently, the military will usher in more pervasive respect for women in the military in general, and help create a broader culture of mutual respect to end the epidemic of sexual assault across the board.

The epidemic of rape in our military calls not for less women to serve, but for women to be represented in more equal numbers. The presence of more women, serving alongside men, would invariably change military cultural norms and in doing so radically reduce the occurrence of rape crimes. Twenty percent of new recruits are women, and with more and more military occupations opening to women, the Armed Services are on the path to greater inclusion. By better handling sexual assault, however, the military can move forward to create a more inclusive and effective fighting force.

As a primary symbol of strength in this country, the U.S. military can be a revolutionary force for challenging gender norms in America, just as it challenged racial norms and led the way on desegregation. By taking a proactive stance against sexual assault -- as they have begun to do -- our armed services can spark a shift in our larger cultural consciousness around sexual assault, and what it means to be an upstanding soldier and citizen.

Amy Ziering is the Producer of The Invisible War, the Academy Award-nominated documentary directed by Kirby Dick.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is an Executive Producer of
The Invisible War, along with Regina Kulik Scully, Geralyn Dreyfous, Maria Cuomo Cole, Abigail E. Disney, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Nicole Boxer-Keegan and Teddy Leifer.