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Harrowing testimonies reveal women in armed forces being raped, assaulted and bullied by male colleagues

Accounts published by the defence committee detail abuse of women within the armed forces

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 04 December 2023 18:17 GMT
One woman had to have her womb removed after being traumatised by the horrific abuse
One woman had to have her womb removed after being traumatised by the horrific abuse (Getty/iStock)

Women in the armed forces have been raped, sexually assaulted and bullied by fellow colleagues, with one woman having to have her womb removed after being traumatised by the horrific abuse, a series of harrowing testimonies have revealed.

The accounts, published by the defence committee, detail multiple allegations of serious sexual violence and harassment, with women saying they felt unable to report the incidents for fear of their careers being ruined.

The testimonies, which will inform MPs’ wider inquiry into women in the armed forces, claim that:

  • One former army soldier was raped in an army barracks and then refused medical care
  • Another woman did not receive the right care for 35 months after a serviceman broke into her room and raped her
  • A junior officer was sexually assaulted after a social function and felt unable to report it
  • A woman was told to drive a “senior and influential” army colleague back to his mess and talk about work. When they arrived in his room, he proceeded to strip off his clothes and she left
  • A serviceman sexually harassed a soldier to the point of attempted suicide. The same man was found using a computer to search for indecent images/videos of children, with the senior command team apparently aware of his behaviour
  • A pregnant servicewoman was sexually harassed at a party but believed speaking up would have “100 per cent ruined my career”
  • A woman in the RAF was stalked, groped and called a “thick f***ing b****” for making an error

The testimonies are part of evidence to the Women in the Armed Forces Inquiry being run by the defence committee, which had its first hearing in November. The inquiry is building on an ongoing investigation, launched by MPs in 2021, into the experiences of servicewomen. Some of the accounts are from women who left the services many years ago, but the majority are from those who have left only recently or who are still in the forces.

In the anonymous testimonies published by the defence committee, one former soldier in the army, who joined in 1994 at the age of 22, said that she had been raped and “what I deem as tortured in the British army in a British army barracks”. She said her career was stripped from her “when the British army refused me medical care/treatment and failed to involve the military or civilian police”.

Chair of the defence committee, Robert Courts MP, said change within the armed forces had been ‘too slow’ (Getty)

She added that she “was coerced into giving what clothing I had on me, any evidence that may have been left”. This eventually led to her getting her womb taken out in a hysterectomy in her late forties, explaining: “With what occurred in army service I came to hate my womanhood, my vagina, my womb, and that damaged part of me I still feel hurts and haunts me.”

One woman in the army described her difficulties with accessing help after a serviceman broke into her room and raped her. “From the point of rape to receiving specific trauma-informed care took 35 months,” she wrote. “I made continued attempts to access support, retelling the trauma 67 times.”

Another servicewoman said a male colleague had sexually harassed one of her junior soldiers to the point that she attempted to take her own life. She added: “The full truth of his behaviours never came out until he was found to have been using a non-MoD office computer to search for child pornography – it transpired that the whole of the senior command team had been aware of his behaviours.”

One junior officer, who had recently decided to leave the army, said she had been “consistently sexually objectified”. She recalled an incident earlier in her career when she was sexually assaulted after a social function, while the perpetrator’s friend watched. She felt unable to report the assault, scared of the “rumour mill” that would spring up if she did.

Another woman who has since left the army said during her time in the Ministry of Defence a serving married naval officer “would not take ‘no’ for an answer”. She explained: “This was the closest I’ve ever come to being raped, but physically I pushed him away from me and he stopped... The next day he came up to me and laughed and said ‘I sexually assaulted you last night.’”

He continued to harass her on the phone after this incident until she threatened to inform his wife, the police and his vetting officer, she said.

The harassment had pushed some women to leave the armed forces, with one former servicewoman saying that by the time she received a decision from the service complaints system – confirming she had been subjected to sexual harassment – she had already decided to quit.

One servicewoman explained that she had been sexually harassed when she was pregnant at a work party (Getty)

One woman in the RAF said she thought that if she rose through the ranks she would be able to make a difference to the culture but “this is simply not the case”.

She recounted that in her first few years in the RAF, she was groped, called a “thick f***ing b****” for making an error, accused of having affairs, stalked for several months by a male colleague, and had to deal with a male colleague entering her room late at night “demanding sexual attention”.

When she reached her current rank, a male colleague told her she was “simply another female being pushed by the RAF to stop men like him promoting”, she wrote.

The testimonies come after an investigation found that the sexual harassment of Gunner Jaysley Beck by her boss was “almost certain” to have been a factor in her death in 2021. Last month, a report also found a “degrading and humiliating” environment for women within the Red Arrows display team, while it was reported that senior women at the MoD have alleged sexual harassment by male colleagues.

Chair of the committee, Robert Courts MP, thanked those who had come forward with their stories. He said: “The accounts of sexual assault and the culture of normalisation of sexual harassment are particularly disturbing and make for difficult reading. While the Ministry of Defence and armed forces have made some progress since our 2021 report on women in the armed forces, this has been too slow, and the underlying culture has been hard to shift.”

Lucy Baston, lawyer at the Centre for Military Justice, who represents many servicewomen bringing complaints and discrimination claims against the MoD, said: “These submissions demonstrate the need for urgent reform – many describe completely appalling behaviours which were either not reported at all, for fear of the complainant losing her career, or, if they were reported, poor outcomes. The handling of serious complaints must be taken away from the single services themselves.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “Sexual offences and unacceptable sexual behaviour have no place in the armed forces. All allegations are taken extremely seriously and crimes are investigated by the service police. We have set up an independent defence serious crime unit, created a victim witness care unit and strengthened our ability to discharge from service anyone who has committed an offence or engages in unacceptable sexual behaviour.”

Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at www.rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)

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