01/31/2013 10:31 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Military Sexual Assault: The Time to Address This Shameful Legacy Is Now

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.

The ongoing coverage of the epidemic of sexual assault in the military has placed the issue squarely in the forefront of the public. Shocking cases of assault continue to come to light and politicians continue to issue statements calling for decisive action to prevent further assaults. While sexual violence in the U.S. military is not a new problem, the widespread media coverage, growing awareness and sense of urgency to stem this epidemic gives us hope that now is the time to end this human rights abuse. With The Invisible War's Academy Award nomination, the opportunity is ripe to finally address this shameful legacy openly.

Women now make up more than 14 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces and more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Approximately 19,000 sexual assaults take place in the U.S. military each year, and almost one in four women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan report being sexually assaulted.

Survivors of military sexual assault, like Ruth Moore, who fought for 20 years for her rape to be acknowledged by the military, have raised public awareness and pressured legislatures to take action. Civil rights and veterans' advocacy groups such as the Service Women's Action Network and grassroots movements like Invisible No More, which grew out of The Invisible War, have built momentum for change. Although important progress has been made, we must continue to address the core issues - gender-based violence is prevalent in the military and justice is rare for women raped by fellow service members. Approximately only one out of every 100 sexual assaults in the military results in a conviction.
The U.S. government must fundamentally reform the military justice system to ensure rape victims receive fair treatment. Currently, an officer within the perpetrator's chain of command, not an independent investigator, is charged with investigating claims of sexual assault. This officer is given extraordinary discretion, which can lead to conflicts of interest and abuse of power, particularly when both the victim and perpetrator are under the same officer's command. Commanders have an incentive to downplay or cover up sexual assaults, as these crimes reflect poorly on the unit.

Independent prosecutors, specifically trained to handle sexual assault cases, must be responsible for investigating and prosecuting these cases. Many countries -- including key U.S. allies like the U.K. and Australia -- have reformed their systems in this manner to ensure greater accountability for perpetrators and greater fairness for victims.

Despite the Pentagon's continued assertion of a zero tolerance policy of sexual assault in the military, new cases show that this country has a problem with gender-based violence. The United States has an obligation to act -- not just under its own laws, but under its international human rights obligations. The United States, which is up for review this year by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, must take decisive action to address the legacy of military rape and provide sufficient remedies for victims, whose stories are now known around the world.

Change is needed. Legislation that addresses these flaws in the military justice system, honors our military men and women's service and helps them heal from violence and betrayal would be a victory in which we can all take pride.