UK parliamentary report finds sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying of women in military

A Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces report released Sunday details evidence of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape experienced by servicewomen in the British military. The report further found that the Ministry of Defense and the military are failing to protect female personnel and help them achieve their full potential.

The report, titled “Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life,” presented detailed accounts from servicewomen regarding inappropriate behaviors including but not limited to sexual assault and/or rape, including while being drugged; gang rape; assault by senior officers or instructors; bullying, harassment, or discrimination undertaken by seniors; unwanted groping, especially at events; attempts by other personnel to get into their accommodation at night; sexual exploitation of those under 18; and racist and homophobic bullying.

Relatedly, the report also detailed experiences such as harsher punishment for the servicewomen believed to have engaged in sexual relations as compared to their male counterparts, and normalization of sexist comments and an expectation to routinely accept them.

Altogether, 64 percent of female veterans and 58 percent of women currently in service reported experiencing bullying, harassment, and discrimination during their careers in an anonymous survey of 1,637 current female personnel and 2,469 female veterans.

The sub-Committee also found that six in 10 women did not report their experiences, while a third of those who did report rated the experience as “extremely poor.” The report also found serious problems with the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, which was sometimes found to exacerbate trauma for victims.

Based on the report, the Committee recommended establishing a specialized unit to handle complaints related to bullying, harassment, and discrimination and make the decisions of the Service Complaints Ombudsman binding while simultaneously supplying it with adequate resources.

It also urged the Defence Ministry to reverse its recent decision to reduce the appeals period from six weeks to two and to remove cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts and the Service Justice System and transfer them to the civilian court system. The Committee further recommended that the chain of command be removed entirely from complaints of a sexual nature.

Appreciating the Defence Ministry’s acknowledgment of rape and sexual assault in the military, Chairwoman of the sub-Committee and veteran Sarah Atherton stated:

Women are integral to our military’s success and our country’s security, yet women in the Armed Forces carry additional burdens to that of their male colleagues. Women face barriers to promotion, issues with families and childcare, abuse and inappropriate behaviours. … 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. … The military has come a long way in recent years, with all ranks now open to female service personnel. However, it is clear to us that the military is, in many ways, a man’s world. Even on some fundamentals–armour, sanitary products, and adequate healthcare–the Ministry of Defence is letting female personnel down. … As a veteran myself, it was important that we undertook this ground-breaking piece of work, the first of its kind

Atherton closed by thanking the 4,200 women, representing nine percent of the regular female military population, who contributed to the inquiry and reassured them that their voices have been heard.

Chairman of Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood, highlighted the importance of women in the military and to the country and acknowledged that servicewomen and female veterans, have far too often been let down by the military and the Ministry of Defense. Stating that this “is not a race to the bottom or a matter of saving face,” Ellwood said that rectifications must be made wherever injustices have occurred.