WASHINGTON, March 17, 2009 (AFP) - The number of reports of sexual assault rose by eight percent in 2008 in the US military, and spiked by more than 25 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.
The Defense Department attributed the sharp rise to efforts designed to raise awareness of the problem and to rules making it easier to report such assaults.
For the fiscal year 2008, the Defense Department received 2,908 reports of sexual assault by members of the armed services, compared to 2,688 in fiscal 2007, according to the department's annual "Report on Sexual Assault in the Military."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 170,000 troops are deployed, the number of reported assaults increased to 165, a sharp rise of 26 percent in a year, the report said.
Nearly two-thirds of the complaints registered for 2008 concerned suspected rapes or "aggravated sexual assault," it said.
"The increase in reports means the department's policy of encouraging victims to come forward is making a difference," said Kaye Whitley, director of the department's sexual assault prevention and response office.
"This does not mean sexual assault has gone up. This means that reports have gone up, which we see as very positive, because we're getting the victims in to get care," she said.
The victims, fellow members of the armed services as well as civilians, can inform the military of the assault anonymously. Under this "restricted reporting rule," the victims can receive counseling and other services without a criminal prosecution of the suspect and without informing their commanding officers.
The confidential reporting rules were introduced in recent years to encourage more victims to come forward.
"Given the fear and stigma associated with the crime, sexual assault remains one of our nation's most under-reported crimes, in both the military and civilian communities," Whitley said.
In 2,763 investigations of sexual assaults last year, punishment was meted out in only 832 cases, including 317 court martials, the report said.
But the Pentagon said that court-martial actions increased in 2008 compared to 2007, with military commanders referring eight percent more cases to trial.
US lawmakers at hearings earlier this month urged the Pentagon to use methods backed up by research as it tries to tackle the problem of sexual assault.