Defense needs to improve efforts to prevent sexual harassment, GAO says

The Defense Department must do a better job of overseeing and enforcing policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the armed forces, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

GAO surveyed 583 members in all four branches of the armed services stationed across the country and overseas. Of those, 82 said they had been sexually harassed in the past year, and only four of the 82 formally reported the incident. Several reasons were given as to why they did not report the incidents, including the belief that their claim would not be taken seriously.

While Defense requires each branch of service to assess its programs annually and record specific data on complaints received, the department has not enforced this requirement in almost a decade, GAO said.

To encourage reporting, GAO recommended that Defense develop sexual harassment guidelines for when two branches of military service work together, while the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity should develop an oversight framework to monitor the department's progress and to set new goals.

Defense leadership also should create a strategy to hold senior officers accountable for promoting harassment policies and programs and have leaders regularly assess organizational health and effectiveness, GAO said.

Defense agreed with GAO's five recommendations. The department's response detailed a new initiative in development by Defense's Office of diversity Management and Equal Opportunity that would revise the Military Equal Opportunity Framework through a systemic review to increase accountability.

"The goal of the review will be to develop an overarching Department of Defense strategy of holding leaders at appropriate levels in the organization accountable for promoting, supporting and enforcing the department's sexual harassment policies and programs," Defense said.

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