Woman in armed forces ‘face considerable risk of sexual harassment, assault and bullying’

Sexual harassment, bullying and physical assault of women is prevalent in the armed forces, a worrying new report has found.

Researchers, who polled 750 women veterans, discovered almost a quarter (22.5 per cent) reported having experienced sexual harassment, while 22.7 per cent said they had been subjected to emotional bullying.

The report, published in BMJ Military Health, found five per cent were sexually assaulted and three per cent physically assaulted.

Younger women, women who had served as officers or worked in a combat or combat support role while in the army were more likely to report such experiences, the report says.

The study found sexual harassment was substantially linked to a situation where women found themselves feeling in pain or fatigued due to the mental health repercussions of the mistreatment they endured.

“Sexual assault was significantly associated with alcohol difficulties, and emotional bullying was significantly associated with common mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression, low social support and loneliness,” researchers warned.

The study predominantly polled women aged over 61 about their former lives in the military, with researchers noting the “findings may not be generalisable to younger army personnel”.

“Many women do not report adverse service experiences due to fear of the consequences of doing so and may continue to suffer from increased mental health distress during and after military service,” researchers said.

“It is essential to consider whether current reporting procedures may not provide sufficient confidentiality to encourage women to report adverse experiences and more appropriate disclosing procedures should be considered.”

Some 16,500 women are currently serving in the UK military – constituting around 11 per cent of the workforce.

Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen, who stepped down over a year ago over alleged discrimination, told The Independent she was “saddened but not at all surprised” to see the findings of the research.

She added: “This report is linked to stories from veterans, but the issues have not changed. The recent Atherton Women in Defence inquiry that reported in July found the same things are still happening and are possibly increasing in frequency or through increased reporting.”

Lieut Col Allen, who was one of the first women in history to train at Sandhurst at the age of 18, said she agreed with the report’s warning there is a dearth of support for veterans who in turn have their experiences “ignored”.

She added: “There is a similar issue for serving, who also have no voice due to the very real fear of being ostracised and losing housing and careers by speaking up. What is common is lack of legal or HR representation, while the Ministry of Defence (MoD) deploys large teams of lawyers to gas-light these women and tell them nothing happened.

“Add this to the lack of confidentiality in the system and it is clear why we have these ongoing problems. The common denominator is an ongoing senior leadership problem – the senior leaders write policy but then fail to live up to it.”

The ex-officer, who has written a book called Forewarned about her time in the military, warned their “subordinate leaders then brush issues under the carpet” as a result of their own “real fears” of being pushed out of their jobs “if they bring bad news to their bosses”.

“I suspect we will hear the current stock answer from MoD of ‘the MoD does not tolerate bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and take it very seriously’ – except they don’t. We need to ask them to share examples of when they have taken it seriously.”

Speaking to The Independent for a previous article, Lieut Col Allen told of how a senior male officer allegedly followed her after she left the bar when she was deployed in Germany at the age of 21.

While senior figures said progress on tackling sexism and sexual harassment in the armed forces has been too slow and women in the military often face a sexist culture of “laddish behaviour”. MPs also warned convictions rates in cases of rape and sexual assault remain “shamefully low”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said they are dedicated to “improving the experience for women in the armed forces in every area of their lives and do not tolerate abuse, bullying, harassment or discrimination”.

The representative noted they have enacted measures to improve matters for women in the armed forces, “as we continue to do for all serving personnel,” they added.

“This includes launching a 24/7 confidential and independent whole-force bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline with trained advisors to support personnel.

“All allegations are taken very seriously, with unlawful behaviour investigated by the relevant police service as necessary.”


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