The MoD must do more to improve the treatment of servicewomen
177 women have claimed to have been raped or sexually assaulted while serving at Sandhurst Military Academy over the last 20 years (Alamy)
Two years ago, I chaired the Defence Select Committee’s inquiry into the lived experiences of service women and female veterans. We did not know at that time what a seminal piece of work this would be.
The report sadly revealed some uncomfortable truths about what life was like, and is still like, for female serving personnel and veterans. Evidence stretched back decades and transcended all political parties to uncover what is happening today in our armed forces. The Defence Committee made 35 recommendations to the Ministry of Defence, and nearly all were adopted.
Over the past two years significant progress has been made to make the armed forces more inclusive. For such an old, male dominated institution, change has not been without challenge but the trajectory is heading in the right direction. Women now have uniform and body armour to fit their form, access to sanitary products on deployment, female specific health policies to cover maternity and menopause, and access to wrap around childcare.
A zero tolerance policy has been introduced, with the chain of command being removed from the procedure for dealing with complaints of a sexual nature. A central defence unit has been set up with a focus on victim support and for our female veterans – of which I am one of 251,000 – an acknowledgement that their service was recognised and valued, with significant investment into research to assess their specific needs and the promise of an imminent “Female Veterans Strategy”.
“Change has been glacial in some areas”
In parallel to this progress has been the press reporting of historical cases of abhorrent behaviour, some hitting the criminal threshold, along with behaviour which brings the reputation of the British military into disrepute, namely high-profile incidents at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in the Submarine Service and at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate. Inherent across these cases has been the suggestion of widespread institutional coverups by senior officers.
A key recommendation from my report was that, in order for permanent positive change to happen, all complaints – especially of a sexual nature – need to be dealt with in a standardised, transparent and fair way. However, despite the raft of measures and initiatives put in place, there has been some criticism that this is still not happening, despite, in the case of the Red Arrows, several senior officers leaving the service. One can only question why such cases, which hit a criminal threshold, were not investigated by the new Defence Serious Crimes Unit as opposed to internal, non-statutory investigation, which victims feel is another example of the MoD marking their own homework.
Whilst this progress should be celebrated, there is still a long way to go. Change has been glacial in some areas: for the seventh year in a row, the Service Complaints Ombudsman admits its own system is not “efficient, effective or fair”; and the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey (AFCAS), released on 1 June, revealed that one in eight personnel report being subject to bullying, harassment, or discrimination, compared to one in 10 the year before. Many are still campaigning for serious sexual assault and rape to be tried in civilian courts as opposed to through the service justice system, where the rape conviction rate is lower than the civilian rate.
It is important to keep holding the MoD to account on this, and the Defence Committee will revisit the inquiry towards the end of this year to assess the MoD’s pace of progress against our recommendations.
Earlier this year I established the APPG for Women in Defence and later this month, I will be hosting the APPG’s first parliamentary reception with women from across the defence sector, to both celebrate progress so far, and ensure more is done in the future.
Sarah Atherton is Conservative MP for Wrexham and member of the Defence Select Committee.
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