More is needed to address the legacy of misogyny and abuse in the armed forces
This time three years ago and only six weeks in as an MP, I was garnering support for election onto the Defence Select Committee. As a veteran, and the only female MP with a regular military background, it was a key priority of mine.
In three years, I’m proud of the progress that’s been made in the female service personnel and veteran space. What started as a Defence Committee inquiry into the needs of women in the military, entitled Protecting those who Protect us or colloquially known as the “Atherton Report”, turned quickly into a full investigation, uncovering deeply concerning patterns of behaviour in the military. What was referred to as “laddish” culture, by the chief of defence staff at the time, unravelled to include serious incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual assault and rape.
There were women still serving who bravely shared their experiences, but there were also cases from decades ago
After convincing the Defence Secretary to lift the Defence Instruction Notice, which prohibited serving personnel from speaking to parliamentarians, we proceeded with gathering evidence. The first indication of the scale of the problem came when we received 4,106 testimonies from serving women and veterans in just two weeks. It was clear that we would be dealing with a lot more than “laddish” behaviour. After analysis, we discovered we had spoken to 10 per cent of female regulars in the military today – with that sample size I was confident the Ministry of Defence would come to the table.
We heard of shocking cases of serious sexual assault, rape, gang rape and cover-ups from the chain of command. In some cases the senior officers were the alleged perpetrators. There were women still serving who bravely shared their experiences, but there were also cases from decades ago when we lived in a very different social context.
Since the inquiry started, Salute Her UK – the only female specific veterans’ charity in a sea of 1,800 other veteran charities – accepted our referrals for serving women and veterans who were suicidal, re-traumatised and in need of immediate support, initiated by the process of giving evidence to the committee. Within two years Salute Her’s caseload increased from 250 to 3,000 and I’m grateful for their support to the inquiry and these women.
Over the past few years this issue has attracted media attention, with the most harrowing cases being thrust into the spotlight. The Red Arrows, Sandhurst, the Submarine Service and Harrogate are all shocking examples of serious misconduct, poor leadership and an unchecked misogynistic culture. Each example above does not involve a one off incident of abuse of position or power, but a deep-seated culture where some believe they are above the rule of law, society, and decency.
The MoD’s response has thankfully been swift; with agreement to most of our recommendations and changes in-flight, to address the lack of transparency, injustice and inequality in our armed forces. The chain of command has been removed from complaints of a sexual nature, a whole-force Defence Serious Crime Unit has been established, with a presumption of discharge on all cases which brings the good name of the British military into disrepute. Whilst these are most welcomed, time will tell if these make a difference on the ground; culture doesn’t change overnight.
The question remains: how does the MoD address the legacy cases? Will it be willing to correct the mistakes of the past, adopting its new victim-centred, zero tolerance approach, regardless of rank or position, when addressing historical cases?
My suggestion, given the volume of such cases highlighted through my investigation, would be to set up a historical legacy team within the new Defence Serious Crimes Unit. This would demonstrate that the UK armed forces are true to their word and earn their place as one of the best armed forces in the world in which to serve and be a veteran.
Sarah Atherton, Conservative MP for Wrexham.
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