Do female soldiers get any privacy when they're overseas?

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March 22 2007 6:46 PM

Do Female Soldiers Get Any Privacy?

How the army separates its men and women.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Claims of sexual assault in the military rose 24 percent in 2006, according to a Pentagon report released Wednesday. An older study found that nearly half of all assaults in the Army take place in barracks. (Click here for a PDF.) Given these dangers, how much privacy do women get when they're deployed in the Middle East?

It depends on what they're doing there. In Kuwait, where companies bound for Iraq stop for training and acclimatizing, the degree of privacy is up to the women. Male and female soldiers are expected to sleep cot to cot under large tents that house 50 to 60 people at a time. The women usually curtain off a single-sex section in the back with sheets and ponchos. But this kind of self-segregation carries the risk of alienating women from their platoon, depriving them of Army chatter, or making them seem as though they need special treatment. In particular, females in leadership positions can't afford to live apart from the male soldiers they command. For them this means changing clothes inside sleeping bags—a practice many male soldiers also adopt.

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Women tend to get a little more privacy in Iraq. The soldiers who serve on some of the most dangerous missions enjoy some of the nicest accommodations. (Some even get to stay in quarters that have been jazzed up with reliable hot water and air conditioning.) Here, groups of two and three share bunk beds in small barracks rooms, and women are usually housed in one part of the building. Doors have locks, but they don't always work. To ward off sexual assaults in the barracks, female soldiers below the rank of sergeant follow a buddy system at all times—for getting around the base during the day as well as for making bathroom visits in the middle of the night. (Former Abu Ghraib commander Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski even charged that some women have died of dehydration because they feared going to the latrines at night.) Men are also encouraged to use a buddy system, for a different purpose: Having another soldier with you is supposed to keep you in line or provide a witness should trouble occur.

Privacy is often the last concern during convoy missions, when dozens of vehicles make dangerous trips that last anywhere from 12 hours to a couple days. Convoys won't risk too many roadside stops, so when nature calls, many soldiers of both genders cut their one-liter water bottles in half and pee into the makeshift cup. Portable urinals for women come in handy in these cases, but some female soldiers refrain from drinking liquids and try to hold out until the next rest stop—a practice that can lead to urinary tract infections.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mariel Sosa and Marissa Sousa.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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