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Women Soldiers Forced To Use Socks and Paper As Period Products While On Tour, MPs told

5 min read

Women in the military have turned to using socks and bits of paper when they get their period on tour because the army does not supply them with sanitary products, a committee of MPs has heard.

Personal essential items including factor 50 sunscreen and insect repellent are given out, and preparations are made so that there are stocks of it during military operations, women are apparently left to provide their own tampons and pads. This means they can run into problems when they run out.

During a defence sub-committee hearing on women in the armed forces on Thursday, the MoD was asked to take note of the women’s experiences, after one MP described the evidence given this morning by a former soldier and veterans therapist as “extraordinary”.

The evidence is part of a major inquiry into the treatment of women in the armed forces and female veterans and is being led by Tory MP Sarah Atherton, who served in the Intelligence Corps after she left school.

So far 4,100 serving personnel and veterans have taken part in a survey on their experiences in the forces, and nine percent of all women currently serving have provided evidence for the inquiry.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace lifted what’s known as the ‘defence instruction notice’ so they could take part.

Atherton said: “Let’s hope the MoD are listening. If they give factor 50 and insect repellent... so let’s hope they’re listening in.”

Paula Edwards, a mental health therapist with the female veterans charity Salute Her, said: “There’s quite a lot of women that I work with who talk about being on tour and getting their period, not factoring it in, caught unaware, and those women don’t have anything to use in the way of sanitary towels or tampons, so they use socks or bits of paper.

“They go to someone of a higher rank to ask for help and they’re made to feel like they’re stupid and embarrassed about the situation – so they say nothing.”

She said women have reported being bullied over their periods and have been told that they smell. Having to use other kinds of materials instead of sanitary products has also led to infections and health problems, which then go unreported, she said.  

SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes asked if women are having to buy their own sanitary products before going on duty overseas.

Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Diane Allen, who was also giving evidence, and left the army last February over alleged discrimination, told the committee: “It is a problem on operations, going overseas. Women are resilient… but if you take them out of the normal infrastructure of the UK then some things do need to be provided by the chain of command when you’re on operation. 

"I believe, unless that’s changed, they aren’t provided for by the MoD.”

She said if there’s a supply chain for sunscreen on operations, why not for women’s sanitary products?

Accusations of gas-lighting, discouraging complaints and coercing women to withhold information about their ill-treatment in the military were also raised during the evidence session.

“It’s possible to change the culture but it hasn’t happened. We’re still hearing stories that where problems occur, [commanding officers] are turning a blind eye, or worse, they are actively coercing women to withhold information. My own view is we need an independent body to challenge defence leadership,” she said.

Atherton asked if the problem of women being asked to withdraw their evidence, as Allen suggested, happened once people had left the forces too.

“I do believe women are persistently reporting they are being coerced… to change their evidence, and generally be almost gas-lighted to withdraw a story and not take it forward to risk damaging other people’s careers," she said.

Edwards said women she works with who are civilians retract their complaints because the system is distressing and not easy to deal with.   

Using civilian rather than the military court system to investigate rape and sexual assault cases was also raised, and is an issue the Centre for Military Justice has been campaigning on for the past 12 months.

Last year three women serving in the armed forces began legal action aimed at stopping the military courts from trying UK rape cases. They suggested the conviction rate is five to six times lower than in civilian courts.

A spokesperson for the MoD has previously said all sexual offence cases are unacceptable and the armed forces justice system closely mirrors the system for civilians.

The inquiry will send its report to the government in June, and is due to hold two more evidence sessions.

The MoD is understood to be assessing the provision for sanitary products to women who are deployed.

The research was completed in January, but committee member, Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck, said it wasn't yet in the public domain.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “We are grateful to current and former servicewomen whose testimony makes clear that on too many occasions Defence failed to provide adequate support.

“We support this inquiry’s important work and will carefully consider its findings. 

“Great strides have been made in this area, the majority of women have long and fulfilling careers in the military, but much more needs to be done. We are committed to improving the experience for women in the Armed Forces in every area of their lives.

“Anyone who falls short of our high standards of behaviour will be dealt with robustly, including dismissal and possible police investigation. There is no room for any form of discrimination in the military.”

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