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29 January 2021 | Comment | Article by Simon Ellis

Women in the Armed Forces – ‘A Culture of Silence’

The Defence Committee has launched an inquiry into women in the Armed Forces – from recruitment to civilian life by creating a Sub-Committee chaired by Sarah Atherton MP.

Sarah Atherton MP is a British Conservative party politician who has served as the Member of Parliament for Wrexham since the 2019 general election. Ms Atherton sits on the Defence Select Committee, which on 1 December 2020 launched a Sub-Committee to investigate the experiences of female personnel in the military today, as well as service leavers and veterans.

Women have been a vital part of the British Army for the last 101 years and they currently employ over 13,000 women, based in the UK and abroad. (What is it Like to Be a Woman in the Army | British Army – British Army Jobs (mod.uk)).

Historically, women have been neglected by politicians, community support services and the service charity sector. The services that currently exist are specifically designed for men. No+Mans+Land+Final+TW+1.pdf (squarespace.com)

Ms Atherton denounced a ‘culture of silence’ over Army bullying, harassment and rape incidents as she says service women should be allowed to speak to Parliament about sexual abuse and discrimination in the military MP Sarah Atherton denounces ‘culture of silence’ over Army rapes | Daily Mail Online

Currently, a prohibitive Army policy prevents serving members of the Armed Forces from speaking to parliamentarians without authorisation from their superiors. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, was asked to lift the usual restrictions, allowing female service personnel to participate in the inquiry. MP Sarah Atherton denounces ‘culture of silence’ over Army rapes | Daily Mail Online(Sub-Committee: Women in the Armed Forces, from recruitment to civilian life | Sarah Atherton)

Ms Atherton hopes that the inquiry will provide service women and veterans, who have too often struggled to get their voices heard, with a platform to discuss their experiences frankly freely and without fear of repercussions. Ms Atherton has stated:

“Women make a vital and valued contribution to our Armed Forces and to our country. However, serious challenges remain. Female personnel are more likely to make complaints, more likely to report mental health difficulties and more likely to be subject to sexual assaults. We need to understand the scale, nature and root of the challenges that female personnel face. Only then can we begin to address the incidence in which the services have failed female serving personnel and identify the solutions(Defence Committee launch inquiry on Women in the Armed Forces – Committees – UK Parliament)

The inquiry will investigate:

  • Whether the Government and MoD is doing enough to address any additional challenges
  • how easy it is to make a complaint, and identify what barriers there are to female personnel complaining
  • whether the experiences of female BAME personnel differ
  • why women chose to leave the Armed forces
  • whether ex-servicewomen face different challenges to men during their transition to civilian life
  • whether the needs of female veterans are currently met by the available services; and
  • the effect that the introduction of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act (2010) has had

To assist with the inquiry, written evidence can be submitted in two different ways:

  1. Submit evidence via an anonymous survey which closed on 14 December 2020
  2. Submit written evidence via the Defence Select Committee’s website which can be submitted any time before 31 January 2021

The Committee will then look at the experiences of female service personnel from recruitment to transition and consider whether there are unique challenges that are not adequately addressed by the current policies and services.

Ms Atherton has also commented upon the current system for military complaints and claims:

‘Forces personnel are subject to military law and the court martial system. This means that when an alleged offence like rape takes place, it is dealt with in a military court where conviction rates in rape cases are four to six times lower than in civilian courts…Women in the military aren’t getting the justice they deserve and simply don’t feel that the military complaints system supports them. The widely held view is that it suppresses complaints rather than properly and impartially scrutinising them’’ (MP Sarah Atherton denounces ‘culture of silence’ over Army rapes | Daily Mail Online)

Women are also significantly overrepresented, compared with men, in the proportion of complaints submitted annually within the Armed Forces. Female personnel comprise 12 per cent of the military, but submitted 23 per cent of complaints in 2019. Almost four in 10complaints made by women were about bullying, harassment and discrimination. (Women soldiers set to give testimony to Parliament over rape and bullying in the Armed Forces (telegraph.co.uk))

In her campaign, Ms Atherton has also highlighted the work carried out by the military charity, ‘Forward Assist’ and their sister organisation, ‘Salute Her’ which recognise that women veterans ‘are hidden, marginalised and frequently ignored and forgotten population’

In 2020 The Women’s Veterans Task Force came into being, to champion the cause of Women Veterans with a team of volunteers aiming to highlight the experiences of women veterans past and present by giving them a political voice. The team aims to positively influence government policy, highlight unfair and discriminatory practice whilst influencing future decision-making SALUTE HER — Forward Assist (forward-assist.com)

What is clear, is that women in the military have now been given a voice to speak up about their experiences, and rightly so, as women in the military are often forced to leave service due to trauma, lack of support or injury. The transition from military to civilian life is also a challenge to women who are suffering from poor mental health or injury, and they can face longer periods of unemployment than their male counterparts, due to childcare commitments or lack of recognition No+Mans+Land+Final+TW+1.pdf (squarespace.com)

The results of the inquiry should provide a good insight into the lived experiences female armed forces personnel and veterans and hopefully pave the way for positive changes to Army policies and procedures which are long overdue.

At Hugh James we are fully committed upholding the principles of the Armed Forced Covenant, to ensure that those who serve in the Armed Forces whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.

Hugh James has helped thousands of people who have suffered catastrophic personal injury, extending to areas including sexual abuse, clinical negligence, workplace related illnesses (industrial disease), environmental nuisance, and military legal services. Our specialist teams have significant experience in working on complex and high-profile cases, including group actions, where more than one person’s life has been affected by the actions of an individual or an institution.

While all claims are different, your gender does not prevent you from seeking advice and support and getting the justice you deserve. If you are facing any of the issues mentioned in this article, please submit your evidence for the survey at Women’s experiences in the armed forces (office.com) before 5pm On Monday 14 December 2020.

You can also get in touch with us at the specialist Military Team ([email protected]) who can help you take the next steps in investigating whether you have a civil claim for your injuries. Our initial advice is free, and we could even represent you on a no win, no fee basis.

Author bio

Simon Ellis


Simon Ellis is a Partner with Hugh James and has worked with the firm for more than 25 years, having trained and qualified here. Simon heads up the Military Department, advising and assisting current and former military personnel with various health conditions and injuries. He specialises in claims such as hearing loss, non-freezing cold injuries, compartment syndrome and military injury cases. He is often asked to advise on more unusual claims in the military context.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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