Interview: Advocate Stephanie Schroeder
Stephanie Schroeder is a retired United States Marine Corps veteran who was wrongfully discharged from service after reporting a felony crime to USMC authorities. Since then, Stephanie has been leading the way on military retaliation & personality disorder discharge reform for a decade. She advocates for both the Stop Act (Sexual Assault Training, Oversight, and Prevention Act) sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier, and the Military Justice Improvement Act sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She represented victims of military sexual assault at the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture in Geneva. She continues to work with Cornell University, Service Women’s Action Network, Protect Our Defenders, & Equality Now as an advocate before the United Nations and monitors/advises on sexual assault & retaliation policy implementation in the military.
Stephanie will be speaking about her work on our upcoming Universal Periodic Review Webinar in the Webinar Wednesday series. Please visit www.upr2020.org to register for the webinar and for more information about the upcoming UPR of the United States.
Can you tell us about what you were working on when you first got involved with the US Human Rights Network?
Women’s rights; when I first started I was very specific in that I only dealt with military sexual trauma (MST). At the time, I was working with Cornell University. We couldn’t get any traction Stateside; we couldn’t get Congress or the US Department of Defense to take [the issue of military sexual trauma] seriously. There were times we were testifying before Congress and they would opt to just not come back from lunch.
After I went to the UN, that’s when they started taking it seriously in the US. As I got involved with the UN, I started to take on other roles in regards to wider women’s rights issues, domestic violence, harassment, rape, and more.
Can you tell us about your experience engaging at the United Nations?
Cornell told me, we have the opportunity to go before the UN. I would testify about MST. At that point it wasn’t considered to be a national security threat, they weren’t taking it seriously, we didn’t even have police to investigate it.
Once Cornell connected me with USHRN, the Network sponsored me to go over to the United Nations in Geneva for the 2014 Convention Against Torture, and thank God they did. It launched MST forward; it progressed so much faster than I expected. When I sat down and began to testify about what had happened to me, both of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped the proceedings to apologize to me right then and there for what had happened to me.
Once that happened, it opened up opportunities for me to have meetings to negotiate outside of the UN. And then Stateside, we started working with the Joint Chiefs. We knew they were going to overhaul the civilian criminal code - we reframed [sexual assault in the military] as a national security threat. The next thing I knew, we were working with the Human Rights Council and the State Department - my experience at the United Nations opened up a whole lot of doors that gave me access to the highest levels of the government to start negotiating.
It gave me credibility. I was a little nobody trying to make ripples or waves. After testifying, I was viewed as a legitimate activist. It was life changing in that it helped me in my journey, and it opened so many doors so that I could help so many others.
How did your experience at CAT impact your community back home?
A lot of survivors come to me through word of mouth - the UN experience cemented with victims and survivors that there are people like me that are willing to help in the situation they are in. I started getting a lot of word of mouth referrals - I’ll help whoever I can, whenever I can.
In May 2015, we won four recommendations in regards to MST. I was able to take recommendations with people like Senator Gillibrand to get legislation introduced to Congress. We introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, and we got that introduced. Now I have more than one pathway to get legislation introduced, because we opened the door to the State Department and directly to the Joint Chief; that was the biggest blessing out of engaging with the UN.
If you could give one piece of advice to people who are engaging with international mechanisms for the first time, what would it be?
I would tell them, number one - do it. Number two - go to the Network, and talk to the other advocates. When i came to the UN, I spoke with people like [UPR Task Force Co-Chairs] Mary and Josh and asked for guidance, which they were more than happy to give me. I leaned on them, and I leaned on Cornell - if there were things from a legal standpoint that I couldn’t grasp, I would go and ask questions about specific terms or whatever it was. For the most part, I would lean on advocates who were already part of the Network. They are still to this day my greatest resource if I don’t understand or if I need help to get to plan B, they’re the first people I call. So I would tell anybody who is looking to do it, you might not understand at first, but whatever questions you have they are happy to help. Pick their brains! They will break it down for you.