Women who are willing to die for their country shouldn’t have to face - to quote Sarah Atherton MP - “bullying, harassment, discrimination, ‘laddish’ behaviour, and sometimes serious sexual assault and rape”.
Ms Atherton is well placed to comment because she is an Army veteran who chairs the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces.
The sub-committee has published a report which found that the armed forces are failing to help women achieve their full potential, and when things go wrong they go “dramatically wrong”.
The committee’s survey found that 64% of female veterans and 58% of serving women reported experiencing bullying, harassment, discrimination (BHD) during their careers.
The majority of the women surveyed said they do not believe the military does enough to address BHD, even if things are better than they once were.
Nearly 40% of 993 military women said their experiences of the complaints system were “extremely poor”.
“Too often, complaints are being brushed under the carpet and there is inadequate support,” the report said.
It added that other parts of the military culture show “it is still a man’s world”, with more than three-quarters of the serving female personnel who engaged in the inquiry talking about inappropriate, ill-fitting uniform and body armour, which placed them at greater risk of harm in combat.
Ms Atherton said it was clear to the committee that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the court martial system.
“It cannot be right that conviction rates in military courts are four to six times lower than in civilian courts. Military women are being denied justice,” she said.
While most servicewomen and female veterans consulted (almost 90% of respondents to the survey) said they would recommend the armed forces as a career, more than 3,000 (around 84%) reported that female service personnel face additional challenges relative to their male counterparts.
The Army said it was working with the Defence Secretary to “drive out unacceptable behaviour at all levels”.
The scale of this unacceptable behaviour is made clear in the report. MPs were alarmed and appalled that the Army’s sexual harassment survey of 2018 found that 21% of servicewomen had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work in the previous 12 months.
The report said: “Such a figure should have raised major concerns in the Army but appears not to have done so.
“The stories that we heard are truly shocking and they gravely concern us.
“In particular, we are disturbed by repeated examples of senior ranks failing those they command, by not responding appropriately or even engaging in these behaviours themselves. Some of the language we heard from senior leaders also concerned us, as it appeared to imply servicewomen wanting to progress need to learn to put up with these behaviours.”
These issues are, of-course, not solely of concern to the military.
Research by the Young Women’s Trust found that a third of young women do not know how to report sexual harassment at work.
A survey of 4,000 young people aged 18 to 30 for the charity showed that one in four women would be reluctant to report sexual harassment for fear of losing their job.
But the British Army must set a standard for all civilian organisations to follow.
During times of crisis, the army is called on to protect us all. It has, for example, played a vital role in protecting businesses and properties from flooding during appalling weather, such as Storm Ciara which struck last year.
The army should set the moral tone for the nation. As a first step, it must provide evidence to Government that a “zero tolerance” of harassment is backed up with decisive action.
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