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Release: April 30, 2001

UI, VAMC researchers study workplace violence against military women

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Factors within the military workplace environment are significantly associated with the risk of non-fatal physical and sexual assault toward women in the armed forces, according to a study by University of Iowa and Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) researchers.

The study, involving more than 500 female veterans, finds that environmental factors such as the behavior of superior officers may promote violence toward women and were highly associated with whether or not women in the military were assaulted during their time of service.

"With more than one-half million females serving in the U.S. Department of Defense, military women are an important population from which to learn more about women in the workplace and the consequences of violence," said Anne Sadler, Ph.D., a registered nurse and researcher at the Iowa City VAMC who designed and headed the study. The results were published in the April issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Bradley Doebbeling, M.D., UI associate professor of internal medicine and epidemiology, and a staff physician and researcher at the Iowa City VAMC, said the environmental risk factors for assault found in this study seem to be comparable to risk factors in non-military settings.

"This suggests that if harassment is allowed in the workplace, it predisposes women in those environments to assault," said Doebbeling, a co-author of the study. He hopes the study findings will help create interventions in both military and non-military work settings to lower the number of assault victims.

The UI and VAMC researchers interviewed 537 women veterans nationwide who served in the Vietnam, post-Vietnam and Persian Gulf War eras. These women were selected from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs comprehensive women's health care registries. Participants completed an extensive structured interview to determine socioeconomic and environmental factors associated with victimization and its consequences while in the military. Researchers used the Women's Military Environment Survey, developed and piloted during this study, to obtain information on occurrence of violence while in the military, work and leisure environments, officer conduct toward women, work performance, and health care access.

The researchers found that 79 percent of the participants reported experiences of sexual harassment during their military service. Fifty-four percent reported unwanted sexual contact, and 21 percent reported physical violence solely within the context of rape. Thirty-six percent of respondents reported threatened or completed physical assault (30 percent completed), with 23 percent of those women reporting physical assault outside the context of rape or domestic violence. Fifty-nine percent of those who reported having been physically assaulted reported at least two occurrences; some women reported as many as 20 such occurrences.

Environmental risk factors related to violence towards women were present in both on-duty and off-duty base settings. Women who worked in environments where sexual harassment occurred were five times more likely to be physically assaulted.

The behavior of ranking officers was associated with women's frequency of physical assault. Women working with ranking officers who made sexually demeaning comments, or allowed such behavior, were three times more likely to be victims of physical assault.

Women who stayed in mixed-gender barracks and experienced unwanted sexual advances, remarks or pressure for dates from men in their sleeping quarters were found to be almost seven times more likely to be physically assaulted. In absence of harassment, mixed-gender quarters were not a significant risk factor.

"The noticeable thing about the results is that physical assault occurs in the workplace in both military and non-military settings," Doebbeling said. "It is important to identify the factors within the work environment associated with frequency of assault so they may be modified or prevented to decrease the probability of future incidences from occurring."

Another research study by Sadler and Doebbeling, published in the September 2000 issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, found unique health-related effects of workplace physical and/or sexual assault that could influence reasons why female veterans seek health care. For example, women who were both physically and sexually assaulted during their military service were more likely to report chronic health problems and use of prescription drugs for mental health problems.

The Obstetrics and Gynecology study found that women who were physically assaulted during their military service reported current problems with physical health, while women who experienced rape or dual victimization (rape and physical assault) evaluated both their physical and mental health as poor. Women who experienced dual victimization reported the poorest health status, similar to that of women with a major medical illness.

"The study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology demonstrates that violence towards women has long-lasting and profound effects on women's physical and emotional health. Hopefully, this information will encourage health care providers to routinely screen female patients for histories of both physical and sexual violence," Sadler said.

The research for both published studies was funded by a grant from the federal Department of Army Medical Research.