The Commons Defence Sub-Committee has accused the Ministry of Defence of “failing to protect female personnel” and the military chain of command of “letting them down”.
Amongst other things, the report entitled “Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life”, also concludes that women are obstructed from “achieving their full potential” by not having an adequate system in place to counter the abuse.
Women in military service have experienced “shocking” levels of rape, sexual harassment discrimination and bullying. There is so little faith and confidence in the “poor” complaints system that the inquiry has revealed that more than half of women surveyed did not even report the abuse they had suffered.
The survey by the committee found that 64 percent of female veterans and 58 percent of women currently in service, 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”. The report continued that “the majority of our survey respondents do not believe the military does enough to address BHD”
Added to this, “The committee discovered a lack of faith in the complaints system”. Finding that six in 10 women did not report the BHD they experienced, and of those who did complain, a third of those rated the experience as ‘extremely poor’.”
Sarah Atherton, chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, said: “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.”
The report also revealed that conviction rates for charges of serious sexual offences are up to six times lower in the military than in civilian courts. The report states that: “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.”
In addition to harassment and bullying, the committee found that servicewomen are facing problems with equipment that exposes them to the “danger of life-threatening injuries”. 84% of servicewomen questioned said they faced additional challenges relative to their male counterparts. Faults included “armoured plates restricting movement, oversized helmets restricting vision, and servicewomen deliberately dehydrating themselves due to limited systems for female urination.”
The committee’s report has its origins in an investigation 2 years ago, by air chief marshal Sir Michael Wigston, the head of the RAF, which concluded 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 did not understand or appreciate the seriousness of the problems.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s investigation and the subsequent widely praised report led to the MoD announcing the establishment of a Defence Authority, with a role in investigating allegations such as sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. This would also allow personnel more opportunities to make complaints anonymously.
Responding to the report, 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 chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood 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.”