Unexpected New Alliances for Addressing Military Involvement and Sexual Exploitation

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

Jennifer Butler responds to Jane Margold's article "Women, Violence, and the Reinvolvement of the U.S. Military in the Philippines." (Use link in the right sidebar to read "Women, Violence, and the Reinvolvement of the U.S. Military in the Philippines.")

Jane Margold’s article illustrates the strengths of using the human rights framework and organizing internationally to advance human rights. Ultimately a change in U.S. military practices will only come about as American NGOs, working in concert with NGOs in the region, find a window to advance this issue using a human rights lens. A powerful new constituency, conservative evangelicals, has shown interest in the issue of sex trafficking. This new dynamic presents opportunities and challenges to more progressive groups in the United States that have worked on this issue for decades.

Global organizing by feminist, peace activists and progressive mainline denominations and Catholic orders on issues of modern day sexual exploitation and trafficking accelerated largely since the eighties. In the late nineties ECPAT (USA), one of a handful of NGOs addressing military prostitution, put together a coalition of organizations that met with the U.S. Defense Department and with the Armed Forces Chaplains Board to discuss this very issue. In both cases the concerns raised were met in general with a denial of responsibility on the part of DOD leadership and constructive solutions were rejected.

One of the main approaches used by ECPAT (USA) has been to urge the US Department of Defense and military chaplains (who often are responsible for education and moral instruction) to see militarized prostitution as a human rights issue. While the Defense Department has acknowledged the problem around its bases (to the point of participating in the 1996 World Congress on Sex Trafficking held in Stockholm), conversations with officials and educational materials used to educate servicemen about prostitution reveal that the Defense Department frames the issue either as a health concern, security issue, or a diplomatic risk. Educational modules on prostitution designed for servicemen seldom if ever humanize the women caught in the sex trade and never expose the exploitation that they experience. Defense Department officials and base leadership, even military chaplains, when challenged to address the issue, respond with familiar clichés such as “boys will be boys” and “prostitution is the age-old profession.” The implication, intended or not, is that the exploitation of women and girls is natural for men, and therefore impossible to address. Ironically, they often portray servicemen as victims of prostitutes, who are described as “aggressive.” (One chaplain asked me how to train his men to tell the difference between adult and child prostitutes so that his men could be “protected” from a law adopted in 1994 that would allow courts to prosecute U.S. citizens for paying with sex with minors overseas.) Rather than tackling sexual exploitation as a crime and human rights violation to be eradicated, the U.S. military tends to try to regulate its excesses, claim impotence to address the issue, or blame the problem solely on the host country.

The challenges of changing such a response, so rooted in culture, are enormous; some no doubt think it impossible. However the work of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and other NGOs in getting the UN Security Council to make women, peace and security issues a higher priority suggests that it is possible to shift mindsets even in male dominated contexts where a gender lens has not traditionally been applied.

During the mid- to late-1990s, a powerful and surprising new constituency joined the ranks of those working on sex trafficking: conservative evangelicals in the United States. While they often approach the issue from a moralistic rather than human rights framework, evangelical interest in this issue has been instrumental in keeping the problem of sexual exploitation high on the Bush Administration’s agenda. The result has been a dramatic increase in the ability of advocates on all sides of the political spectrum to address this issue.

Traditionally, the patriotic leanings of social and religious conservatives have prevented them from criticizing the U.S. military. They tend to view such critiques as liberal and anti-American. However, recently, Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a religious conservative, has publicly critiqued the U.S. Armed Forces and has even tried to bring the issue to Congress.

Can feminists and other progressives make alliances with conservatives to address the sexual exploitation of women around U.S. military bases and do so from a human rights perspective? Some, particularly sex worker rights groups, are suspicious of such alliances, fearing they will cause too much compromise. Such critiques can be helpful and should be examined. However, in 2000 progressives and conservatives successfully collaborated on lobbying for the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act. While clear differences in strategy and an analysis of the issue remain, this legislation in fact has been very successful. In an increasing era of militarization and U.S. empire building, closer collaboration with conservatives on this issue may be the only way finally to make progress in addressing the U.S. military’s culpability.

Understanding the diversity of perspectives and approaches among religious conservatives is critical for progressives seeking to be strategic in this arena. Many NGOs that have conservative evangelical constituencies, such as World Vision, adeptly use the human rights rubric and apply a gender lens in their international policy work. While many conservatives often see the issue of sexual exploitation in moralistic terms, others such as International Justice Mission—an American NGO that focuses much of its work on rescuing women and children from brothels in Asia—are gradually beginning to understand the economic and political structures that reinforce this system of exploitation. In fact, their work on the issue of sexual exploitation provides a unique entry point for them to begin to delve deeper into these issues. Human rights language may offer a common discourse for two opposing sides to unite, finally advance this issue, and, in the process, educate one another.

Throughout history, the sexual exploitation of women during wartime and in militarized societies has been accepted as unpreventable or even normative. Such norms are being challenged by NGOs in the global women’s movement. The success of Gabriela’s work in the Philippines, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom's work on Security Council Resolution 1325, and the gender lens used in the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court all illustrate this gradual yet powerful shift in global consciousness. This shift would not be possible without global networking. As Margold's article demonstrates, a human rights discourse is key to fostering coalition building and making the sexual exploitation of women by U.S. military personnel an issue that must be taken seriously. Persuading the U.S. military to address the plight of sexually exploited women is a task too tall for any one NGO or region of NGOs. As NGOs in the United States work together with those in the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and other affected areas, they together will be able to challenge their governments to change their policies.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights

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