Helen Benedict: On making the military more inclusive for women

Helen Benedict is a novelist specializing in social injustice, refugees and violence against women. She is best known for her work highlighting military sexual assault against female soldiers in Afghanistan. In this interview, Benedict sheds light on her work and also tells us more about how we can make the military more inclusive for women.

With the war situation in Ukraine, the world is seeing another refugee crisis. Do you think there is a correlation if any between the refugee crisis and sexual assault?

It is not a refugee crisis, it is a moral crisis on the part of the West, now opening arms and borders to Ukrainian/European refugees while closing them to refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The world has room to take in all these people. It lacks the will. Most refugees are taken in by the poorest countries in the world, while the richest take the least. As for sexual assault, smugglers, police officers and soldiers exploit the desperate and alone all the time.

Your book “How to survive sexual assault” is used as a guides across rape crisis around the US. Do you think the book can also be used in other countries? How does dealing with rape differ from country to country?

The book (called Recovery: How to Survive Rape for Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families) was translated and published in Hungary, the first book about rape ever to be seen in that country. Another of my books on the subject was published in the Czech Republic, also the first. So yes, it can be used in other countries… I wish it would be used more. Some places are much further behind the US in dealing with rape openly and without blaming the victim. Some have a long way to go to root out the patriarchal traditions that lead to this victim blaming and shaming. Some are progressing, like India. Some are still way behind.

What are some ways in which the UN can take action to prevent sexual assault specifically in case of refugees?

Stop locking refugees up in closed detention centers. Stop imprisoning single and traumatized women/LGBTQ and minors on islands and in detention centers, where they are vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Again, my forthcoming book, Map of Hope and Sorrow, has a whole chapter devoted to answering your question.

What brings out your personal interest in the refugee crisis worldwide?

It began with 911 and watching the rising hatred of Muslims in the West, which reminded me of the way Jews were reviled, demonized and vilified before and during WWII. Islamophobia has only grown worse since then, which, along with the deep racism against Africans around the world, has led to the most shameful lack of sympathy and support for refugees from Muslim and African countries. I happen to believe that nobody should be reviled because of their religion or race or gender or sexual orientation, etc. This so outrages me that I had to do what I could about it as a writer.

Can you tell us what inspired the focus of your work to be on sexual assault in the military?

The stories the women told me. I started off wanting to document what it was like to be a woman in combat… I didn’t focus on sexual assault, I wrote about the whole experience, but while doing so, I happened to expose an epidemic of rape in the military, which rightly shocked people.

What has been the most moving experience in your journalism career so far?

Seeing the incredible resilience of human beings even after they have been abused and lost everything. When one of the refugees I interviewed told me that telling his story in my new book made him feel as if his life is worth something, when he was feeling it wasn’t. When a woman who had been raped in the military told me she thought she was alone until she read my book. I can’t give you “the most,” only several.

What are some future books or projects you are working on?

Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece. Forthcoming book from Footnote Press in the UK in June 2022, in the US in October. I wrote that with a Syrian refugee, Eyad Awwdawnan. A novel about refugees, The Good Deed, due to be published in 20214. Another novel, The Soldier’s House, about an Iraqi widow and refugee taken in by an American soldier, to be published in 2025.

How does war affect civilians who are not participating in the war and are far from it. Or even unaware about the realities in some cases.

War rots the soul, ruins the environment, traumatizes and sickens people for generations, and encourages and glamorizes violence. My last novel, Wolf Season, was all about this.

Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.