Women serving in the armed forces have experienced “shocking” levels of rape, sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination, while having such little faith in the complaints system that more than half of them did not report what they had suffered, an MPs’ committee inquiry has revealed.
In what it calls one of the most important reports in its history, the Commons Defence Sub-Committee accuses the Ministry of Defence of “failing to protect female personnel” and the military chain of command of “letting them down”. The report also states that women are being blocked from “achieving their full potential” by not having an adequate system in place to counter the abuse.
One-third of servicewomen taking part in a survey for the report held that the complaints procedure was “extremely poor”. The report also points out that conviction rates for charges of serious sexual offences are between four and six times lower in the military than in civilian courts. It says: “From our evidence, it is clear to us that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the court martial system. Military women are being denied justice.”
The Independent has learned that in response to the grave concerns raised in the report, the government is carrying out urgent reforms to the service complaints system, by way of a pilot scheme that attempts to cut the time taken by investigations from 12 to six weeks. There will also be a pledge by the armed forces chain of command to provide sustained support to personnel while inquiries take place.
Leo Docherty, the MoD’s minister for people and veterans, said: “Our personnel deserve to live and work in a positive, mindful and respectful environment alongside their colleagues. It is only right that our processes for handling complaints are as diligent, efficient and fair as possible.” He continued: “We are approaching reforms to the service complaints system with open eyes as this new pilot investigations service will set the groundwork for real change, actively supporting personnel throughout the complaints process.”
The survey by the committee found that 64 percent of female veterans and 58 percent of currently serving women reported experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD) during their careers. The report said the committee had heard “truly shocking evidence of the bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape experienced by servicewomen”.
“At the same time, the majority of our survey respondents do not believe the military does enough to address BHD,” it stated, going on to say: “The committee discovered a lack of faith in the complaints system. Our survey found that six in 10 women did not report the BHD they experienced. Of those who did complain, one third rated the experience ‘extremely poor’.”
As well as harassment and bullying, the committee found that servicewomen face problems with equipment that exposes them to the “danger of life-threatening injuries”.
The report, titled “Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life”, found that around 84 percent of servicewomen questioned said they faced additional challenges relative to their male counterparts.
The MPs said it was “extraordinary” that the MoD was not getting basics like uniforms and equipment right. Faults included “armoured plates restricting movement, oversized helmets restricting vision, and servicewomen deliberately dehydrating themselves due to limited systems for female urination.”
Sarah Atherton, chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, said: “Sexual assault and rape are amongst the most serious offences committed against female service personnel and discussed in this report. 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 complaints system, as it stands, is woefully inadequate and leaves most feeling unable to come forward. We also heard accusations of senior officers sweeping complaints under the rug to protect their own reputations and careers. 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.”
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Committee, said: “The importance of the contribution that servicewomen make to the military, and to the country as a whole, cannot be overstated. It is clear from this report that more can, and should, be done to protect and provide for servicewomen and female veterans, who have, far too often, been let down by the Ministry of Defence. Where there has been injustice, rectifications must be made.”
The committee’s report follows an investigation by air chief marshal Sir Michael Wigston, the head of the RAF, two years ago, which found that the military suffered from unacceptable levels of sexual offences, discrimination and bullying because of the attitudes of some white, middle-aged men in senior positions who had failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s report, which was widely praised, led to the MoD announcing the creation of a Defence Authority with a role in investigating allegations such as sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination, and giving personnel more opportunities to make complaints anonymously. Other measures included new compulsory diversity and inclusion training, and a harassment survey will also be introduced as part of a “shift in culture”.
The Defence Sub-Committee found that, despite all the challenges, 90 per cent of past and present female personnel would recommend an armed forces career, and the majority said progress had been made in their role in the services.
Baroness Goldie, minister of state at the MoD, said that the committee report made “sobering reading”. But, she added, “it is also worth remembering change is already under way. Following the wake-up call delivered by Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s review in 2019, we set about tackling this corrosive culture of bullying. Since then, an unequivocal message has been delivered from our secretary of state, the chief of the defence staff and the permanent secretary to all of our people, that there will be zero tolerance of intolerance, wherever they serve.”
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