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VA Health Systems Research

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Stranger Harassment of Women Veterans Affects Their Healthcare

April 2, 2020

Takeaway: Women Veterans reporting stranger harassment on VA grounds are more likely to delay or miss healthcare, and both VA senior leadership and VA Women’s Health Services are using and enhancing this HSR&D research in their campaigns to change the environment and culture of VA to be more inclusive, welcoming, and respectful of women Veterans.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of women Veterans using VA healthcare increased 46%, from 237,952 to 455,875. Nonetheless, women still only comprise 8% of VA patients, and they are still vastly outnumbered by men in almost all VA healthcare environments. Investigators with HSR&D’s Women Veterans Healthcare CREATE initiative sought to examine whether harassment was prevalent in settings where many women Veterans receive their healthcare. They surveyed 1,387 women Veterans who had been treated at one of 12 diverse urban and rural VA medical centers across nine states in the prior 12 months. Findings show:

  • Women Veterans who reported harassment were less likely to report feeling welcome at VA, and more likely to report feeling unsafe and delaying/missing care.
  • One in four women Veterans (25%) reported inappropriate and/or unwanted comments or behavior by male Veterans on VA grounds. Eight percent said that this occurred “usually or always” when they were at VA. Negative interactions included sexual/derogatory comments and questions about the women’s Veteran identity and right to VA care.

“In the parking lot, the catcalling starts right away. The women’s clinic is a long way, and I am bombarded by sexual attention.” —Woman Veteran study participant

Not sexual, but they assume that I am not a Veteran, but someone’s spouse, and when I tell them that I am a Veteran, they start talking about how women should not be in the military.” — Woman Veteran study participant

Because this study was part of HSR&D’s Women Veterans’ Healthcare CREATE Initiative, findings were presented to VA healthcare leaders as soon as they were discovered. While the initial culture campaign was led by VA Women’s Health Services, VA’s Executive-in-Charge recently launched a Stand Up to Harassment campaign, requiring every VA facility director to sign a declaration of commitment to tackle harassment locally, in addition to supporting a series of national teams focused on different program and policy responses, which include establishing a national workgroup, gauging effective harassment reduction programs outside VA, convening an expert panel, and piloting and evaluating harassment interventions. This work is ongoing, as is VA Women’s Health Services’ campaign to change the environment and culture of VA to be more inclusive, welcoming, and respectful of women Veterans.

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