Bringing awareness to sexual harassment and assault at VA

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM). It is critical to bring added awareness to the prevalence of this epidemic throughout our nation. By emphasizing the importance of intervention and response, and embedding accountability into our policies and practices, VA is creating a culture that is safer and more welcoming for all.

In a CNN report, data shows an increase in overall sexual harassment and sexual assault reports within the military branches of Army, Navy and Air Force between 2020 and 2021. While concerted efforts to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault at Department of Defense (DoD) and VA are being made, the problem persists.

“So often, from my experience, women find it difficult to find a trusted person to talk to within the military,” said Jennifer Esparza, military Veteran and VA White House liaison. Esparza is also Chair of VA’s I~STAND Sub-Council, which is focused on increasing awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault, advancing prevention and intervention strategies, and improving avenues for reporting throughout the organization.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM). VA is creating a culture that is safer and more welcoming for all.

VA White House liaison Jennifer Esparza

In a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other variables can contribute to the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault:

  • Individual risk factors: alcohol and drug use, lack of concern for others, or hyper-masculinity
  • Relationship factors: family history of conflict or violence, or a childhood history of abuse
  • Community factors: poverty, lack of job opportunities, or a general tolerance of sexual violence
  • Societal factors that support sexual violence or male superiority, women’s inferiority, high levels of crime or other forms of violence

The CDC also reports that protective factors, such as families with caregivers who work through conflict peacefully and with emotional health, can lessen the likelihood of sexual violence victimization.

Talking about it

During her time in service, Esparza experienced multiple instances of sexual harassment by senior leadership, but she didn’t feel she had a safe avenue to report the behavior. When she finally did confide in someone, that individual addressed the senior leader and together they laughed. Esparza was then reprimanded for her complaint.

“One of the hardest things to do is talk about the impact of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” she said. “When I started experiencing panic attacks in the military, I attributed it to being overworked and tired without piecing together the real why behind all of it. I struggled for a long time until I got out of the military.”

Like many, Esparza struggled to accept the traumatic effects of her experiences. Instead, she threw herself into her work, exhausting herself in an attempt to become invisible. After she was discharged, she connected with a VA Military Sexual Trauma (MST) coordinator and began taking the steps to begin to heal.

Now, as the chair of VA’s I~STAND Sub-Council, she’s made it a top VA priority by driving awareness, highlighting prevention tactics and boosting accountability.

“I appreciate that VA is acknowledging there is a problem,” she said. “As we transition after service and figure out how to succeed, finding access to resources to support us and teach us how to be more trauma-informed is important.”

In the future, Esparza would like to see more Miliary Sexual Trauma (MST) Coordinators available to Veterans who can provide long-term services throughout VA. To move the needle on cultural health at VA, all employees, Veterans, family members and caregivers must commit to taking a stand against unwanted behavior.

“The White Ribbon VA pledge is so powerful because it asks us to act and engage in this work by saying those words out loud,” she added. “There is an immense sense of pride you feel when you stand up to not commit sexual harassment or assault or overlook any instances of it at VA.”

Additional resources

Additional resources for reporting an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault can be found at VHA Assault and Harassment Prevention Office Home (va.gov).

Stand up against harmful behavior today and be a part of the change at VA to create a safer and more welcoming and respectful environment for all by taking the White Ribbon pledge: https://www.va.gov/health/harassment-free/.

Related Articles

5 Essential Frameworks for Preventing Violent Child Death

The U.S. has a violent child death problem. Developing strategies to prevent violent child deaths death from firearms and traffic crashes is a demanding task that requires consideration of numerous upstream, interrelated, and tangential issues. To help safety advocates develop strategies to prevent violent child death, we compiled five frameworks to help: Understand and explain …
The post 5 Essential Frameworks for Preventing Violent Child Death appeared first on Salud America.

What Are the Risk and Protective Factors for Violent Child Death?

Gun violence and traffic crashes may seem like unpredictable events. But they are not random. They are systematic. Data reveal trends and patterns in gun violence and traffic crashes that can help us identify risk factors and protective factors. This is especially important for addressing violent child deaths. So what does the data show? Join …
The post What Are the Risk and Protective Factors for Violent Child Death? appeared first on Salud America.

As Social Need Screening Advances, Transportation Remains an Afterthought

Some big changes in 2022 and 2023 have set up the healthcare sector to advance screening for non-medical social needs in 2024 and beyond. This is great news as we work to address social determinants of health (SDoH), improve health outcomes, and reduce health disparities. But one key social need – transportation – isn’t getting …
The post As Social Need Screening Advances, Transportation Remains an Afterthought appeared first on Salud America.

We Need to Recognize Toxic Stress as a Health Condition with Clinical Implications

There is a common health condition with serious medical consequences that has not been nationally recognized by the medical or public health community—toxic stress response. Toxic stress is the body’s response to prolonged trauma─like abuse or discrimination─with no support. It can harm lifelong mental, physical, and behavioral health, especially for Latinos and others of color. …
The post We Need to Recognize Toxic Stress as a Health Condition with Clinical Implications appeared first on Salud America.