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GAO Sees Progress but More Action Needed to Prevent and Address Sexual Assault in the Coast Guard and DOD

Sexual assaults in the military continue to increase, although Congress, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the U.S. Coast Guard have taken actions to prevent and address them, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Between 2004 and 2019, Congress passed 249 statutory requirements to improve how the military helps sexual assault victims, prevents sexual assaults, manages and oversees prevention efforts, and investigates cases and conducts judicial proceedings.

A GAO review has found that the Coast Guard and DOD have met most of these requirements but not all of them. 

The Coast Guard, according to an Office of People Analytics survey report, experienced an increase in the prevalence of sexual assault from 2016 to 2018. An estimated 3.1 percent of female active-duty servicemembers (roughly 184 servicemembers) reported in 2018 having been sexually assaulted in the prior 12 months, which was a statistically significant increase from 2.0 percent in 2016. In a June 2021 report concerning sexual assault, the Coast Guard stated that it remains fully committed to eliminating sexual assault from its ranks.

Earlier this month, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure advanced the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022. As part of this, the committee passed key provisions of Chair Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) ‘Safer Seas Act,’ which implements important reforms to prevent sexual violence while also building protections for survivors. 

“No seafarer should have to tolerate sexual harassment or assault in the maritime industry,” DeFazio said. “I look forward to the House considering this legislation.”

“The Coast Guard implemented most statutory requirements to prevent and respond to sexual assault”, GAO notes in its March 28 report. However, the review found that the Coast Guard only partially implemented some requirements and failed to implement one. For example, the Coast Guard established policies for victims who asked to be transferred, but did not meet statutory requirements for timelines to make decisions on whether to transfer victims. Additionally, the Coast Guard did not ensure sexual assault and prevention response training was provided to servicemembers in the delayed entry program. 

The estimated prevalence of sexual assault in the military increased from 2016 to 2018 for active-duty servicemembers. According to DOD, an estimated 6.2 percent of women and 0.7 percent of men (roughly 20,500 total servicemembers) reported in 2018 having been sexually assaulted, up from 4.3 percent of women and 0.6 percent of men (roughly 14,900 total servicemembers) in 2016.

In a February 2021 memorandum concerning DOD’s efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stated that “Sexual assault and harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems across the total force.” Secretary Austin indicated that DOD’s efforts to counter these assaults were falling far short of what is required to make lasting change. Additionally, Secretary Austin ordered several immediate actions and established a 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military (Independent Review Commission) with the aim of examining sexual assault and harassment in the military. In June 2021, the Independent Review Commission made more than 80 recommendations covering several areas, such as accountability and prevention.

The government watchdog recognized DOD’s efforts to establish comprehensive policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault as well as training for sexual assault forensic and nurse examiners. However, GAO found that DOD did not report certain information in annual reports; establish and implement an evaluation plan to assess the effectiveness of the outcomes of its programs and activities related to sexual assault prevention and response; or ensure the tracking of commander compliance for conducting organizational climate assessments. Consequently, Congress and DOD may continue to lack the necessary data about the effectiveness of programs and activities, which can affect oversight. Additionally, GAO is concerned that DOD may not ensure compliance with the laws and may not fully implement efforts to support victims and prevent sexual assaults.

GAO is making 23 recommendations to improve oversight of DOD’s and the Coast Guard’s sexual assault prevention and response efforts, including that DOD establish an evaluation plan, and that DOD and the Coast Guard establish mechanisms to track and to document that relevant laws are implemented. DOD and the Coast Guard’s parent agency – the Department of Homeland Security, concurred with all 23 recommendations. Actions to address the recommendations will include tracking every statutory requirement related to sexual assault rather than only specific high profile statuary requirements.

Read the full report at GAO 

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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