Military failing to protect female personnel, new report finds


A new report has found that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is failing to protect female personnel.

The report, 'Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life', was carried out by the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces.

It saw roughly one in 10 female personnel currently serving in the Regulars contribute to the inquiry.

While 90% of respondents to the survey said they would recommend the military as a career, 84% said female personnel face additional challenges to their counterparts.

One aspect of the report looked at bullying, harassment, discrimination (BHD) and sexual behaviours in the Armed Forces.

Fifty-eight percent of currently-serving women and 64% of female veterans said they experienced BHD during their careers, while the MOD's representative statistics showed BHD and sexual harassment are gendered.

Bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape

The Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee said the inquiry heard of truly shocking evidence of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape experienced by female personnel.

The majority of the survey's participants said they do not believe the military does enough to address BHD.

Veteran Sarah Atherton MP, Chair of the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, said it "is difficult not to be moved by the stories of trauma, both emotional and physical, suffered by women at the hands of their colleagues".

"A woman raped in the military often then has to live and work with the accused perpetrator, with fears that speaking out would damage her career prospects," she added.

The report also found a lack of faith in the complaints system, with six in 10 women not reporting the BHD they experienced.

It was found, of those who did complain, one third rated the experience as 'extremely poor'.

The military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment was also found to be a serious problem.

The committee urged the MOD to remove rape and sexual assault cases from military courts and the Service Justice System, asking for them to be handled by the civilian court system instead.

"From our evidence, it is clear to us that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the Court Martial system," Ms Atherton said.

"It cannot be right that conviction rates in military courts are four to six times lower than in civilian courts. 

"Military women are being denied justice."

Signage on the outside of the Ministry of Defence building in London.
Defence Minister Baroness Goldie acknowledged that female experiences in the military are "not yet equal" to that of men.

Forces News has also spoken to retired Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen, one of the first women to go through Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1983, about progression within the military.

Ms Allen, who served for five years with the regular Army and 25 years as a reservist, was awarded an OBE for her work in military intelligence in 2018 but was persistently passed over for promotion.

"It was a glass ceiling that was being broken in the civilian world, but perhaps not so much in the military world," she said.

Raising the issue went down "very badly", she told Forces News, adding that there is an "unwritten rule that you don't complain in the military".

A poor experience within the formal complaints system, including "lost" and "deleted" documents, went beyond poor administration, Ms Allen said – describing a "more systematic" obstruction to her version of events.

Removing the chain of command

The report stated the chain of command should be completely removed from complaints of a sexual nature.

"We also heard accusations of senior officers sweeping complaints under the rug to protect their own reputations and careers," Ms Atherton said.

"While many commanding officers want to do the right thing, it is clear that, too often, female service personnel are being let down by the chain of command."

Practical challenges

As well as BHD, the report found a number of practical challenges servicewomen face – some of which may place them in danger of life-threatening injuries.

The committee said the report includes stories of armoured plates restricting movement and oversized helmets limiting visibility.

It also heard how female personnel intentionally dehydrated themselves due to a lack of systems for female urination.

"This neglects the military's duty of care and places women's lives at risk, whilst also having a major impact on operational effectiveness," Ms Atherton said.

Female veterans

Female veterans were also found to have suffered, with three-quarters of respondents finding the MOD to be unhelpful in their transition away from the military.

OMore than half of the demographic said their needs were not being met by current veteran services.

Ms Atherton said female veterans face different challenges to their male counterparts and "have specific needs" which cannot be solved by "one-size-fits-all veterans' services".

Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Defence Committee, said the research is "in-depth" and "has an accurate and honest understanding" of the issues female personnel face.

In response to the report's findings, Defence Minister Baroness Goldie said: "I want to thank the Defence Committee for their thorough inquiry. I know that the work of the committee has been enhanced by the testimony of current and former servicewomen whose experiences have greatly assisted the inquiry.

"I extend my thanks to them and acknowledge that in the past on too many occasions, defence has failed to provide women with adequate support."

She continued: "Many changes have been introduced to improve the experience for women in the Armed Forces, and military service remains a fantastic career opportunity for men and women alike, but the reality is that that experience is not yet equal, and very occasionally can be really harmful.

"I profoundly regret that and we shall examine this report closely and use it to build on the improvements which we have made."

Shadow Armed Forces Minister Stephen Morgan said: "This landmark report exposes the unacceptable treatment that women continue to endure while serving our country with courage and distinction.

"Women are still under-represented across the services, particularly at senior levels, yet make up a disproportionate amount of service complaints which are not being dealt with properly.

"The report's recommendations for cases of rape and sexual assault to be tried in civilian courts, as well its call to retain longer time limits for complaint appeals, would already be achieved if Government had supported Labour's amendments to the Armed Forces Bill.

"The Defence Secretary must take urgent action to address these recommendations, from enlistment to transition, so we can continue to build more inclusive Armed Forces."

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