By Hannah Swarbrick, a senior solicitor in the military team at Bolt Burdon Kemp
Shocking figures have recently been reported in the United States regarding sexual harassment in the military.
Figures from the annual report on sexual assault from the Department of Defense have revealed that sexual assaults against women in the US military have increased by 50% in the last two years.
Women make up only 20% of the US military but were found to be targets of 63% of the assaults, with one in 16 military women having reported being groped, raped or otherwise sexually assaulted within the last year.
This is despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in the last 10 years directed towards prevention efforts and education programmes around sexual harassment.
So why is the problem getting worse for women? What can be done? And how does the UK’s record of dealing with the problem compare with the US?
Looking at the numbers in the UK, figures released by the Army in 2018 revealed that 8% of servicemen and 21% of servicewomen had either experienced or observed sexual harassment at work within the previous 12 months.
While these figures are not a direct comparison, as the UK data includes observing sexual harassment, it is evident that sexual harassment within the military remains a serious issue on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the UK, the findings of the 2018 Army report suggested that the same issues are repeatedly coming up in respect of sexual remarks directed towards female servicewomen by their male colleagues and that sexualised behaviours remain common.
Arguably, a lot more needs to be done to remove any notion that these behaviours are ever acceptable. Part of that requires education around issues of consent, and in particular training on the use of social media, which is where a lot of the comments towards women are appearing.
The report recommended a review of existing policies and better training on sexual harassment.
One solution, which is being called for in both the UK and the US, is a change in how these crimes are reported and dealt with.
In the UK, concerns have long been raised about the reporting of incidents and the way in which these are investigated and prosecuted, with relatively few convictions resulting from the number of complaints involving sexual offences made every year.
There have been calls for more serious cases to be passed to the civilian police for investigation rather than being dealt with exclusively by the various branches of the military police.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a quick fix to the problem of sexual harassment in the military – a sea change in culture is needed and although training and education does help, the US figures suggest the problem remains - and is actually sadly getting worse.
Thankfully in the UK, it would seem that an increased focus on this problem is helping tackle sexual harassment – the 2018 report showed an improvement on figures from 2015 and we have certainly seen greater exposure of these issues over the past few years.
There has been an acknowledgement by senior members of the military that sexual harassment is a problem which will not be tolerated.
This has been echoed by the ex-Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who launched a review into bullying and harassment in the Armed Forces. It is encouraging that steps are being taken to tackle sexual harassment and hopefully this will continue to yield positive results.
Hannah Swarbrick is a senior solicitor in the military claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, a law firm who regularly act for veterans on a number of issues. They also work with military charities to help settle individuals into civilian life.