Sex harassment in armed forces is rife, say women

Almost every woman serving in the Royal Navy, Army and RAF has experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, according to a Ministry of Defence survey that again raises questions about the culture of Britain's armed forces.

The most disturbing cases include 266 allegations of sexual assault and 303 examples of women being offered promotion or better treatment in return for sex. Nearly all of the 9,384 service women who took part in the survey said the sexist behaviour, harassment or assault had taken place in the past 12 months.

More than half of the service women described the experience they reported as being "offensive" while one in seven said it was "particularly upsetting".

The findings follow allegations of bullying and intimidation at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey where four young recruits died in mysterious circumstances. An investigation found "clear evidence of foul abuse" at the barracks in Deepcut.

The research into sexual harassment in the armed forces revealed that jokes, stories, language and material offensive to women were widespread across the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, admitted yesterday that there were "serious issues" that needed to be addressed and said he would confront the problem by calling for a culture change led from the top.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said: "It is clear from the research we have conducted that we have a problem which we must deal urgently with. This is not about political correctness, it is about operational effectiveness."

A high proportion, 14.5 per cent, of the reports of sexist behaviour or harassment were made against senior male officers while a similar proportion of the victims were senior female officers.

Nearly half the respondents (35) who had made a formal complaint were dissatisfied with the length of time it took to resolve. 46 per cent (33) were dissatisfied with the way they were kept informed and 42 per cent (30) were dissatisfied with the way the outcome was explained. More than half (39) of those who made a formal complaint stated that there had been negative consequences as a result of doing so and 64 per cent (46) were considering leaving the services.

When asked about effective measures to prevent sexual harassment, 86 per cent (8,082) supported penalties for perpetrators and 74 per cent supported penalties for leaders who knowingly allowed sexual harassment to continue.

When tackled yesterday about the disciplinary record of the armed forces, neither Mr Browne nor Sir Jock was able to say how many servicemen had been disciplined over the issue.

Last year the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) suspended a formal investigation into the problem of sexual harassment in the armed forces after the MoD agreed to tackle the problem. Yesterday's report and the creation of a new action plan is part of the MoD's response.

Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC said: "We hope to ensure that this commitment translates into real improvements for the men and women who do such a vital job for our country."