Almost two-thirds of women in the armed forces have experienced bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination during their career, according to a parliamentary report that says the UK military is “failing to protect” female recruits.
Heralding its inquiry into the treatment of women in the armed forces as one of the most vital in its history, the defence subcommittee said 62% of the 4,106 veterans and current female personnel who gave testimony had either witnessed or received “unacceptable behaviour”.
Examples of “truly shocking evidence” included accounts of gang rape, sex for promotion or advancement, and trophies or contests to “bag the women” on camp or on ships. Some women revealed how they were bullied for refusing sexual advances or had witnessed friends being attacked by groups of men but were too afraid to report it.
One said that mess and military accommodation were seen as “places of danger” and potentially more dangerous for servicewomen than being deployed to overseas war zones.
Sarah Atherton, chair of the subcommittee on women in the armed forces, said: “The stories we heard paint a difficult picture for women. A woman raped in the military often has to live and work with the accused perpetrator, with fears that speaking out would damage her career.”
The committee’s survey is the first of its kind, with the Ministry of Defence lifting the usual restrictions that prevent service personnel from contributing to such inquiries. Around one in 10 serving women gave testimony, with MPs receiving around 700 comments relating to the male-dominated culture and a number calling for more effort to tackle “mess hall culture” and sexualised behaviour. In addition, 11% of women revealed they had experienced sexual harassment over the past 12 months – compared with less than 1% of men.
MPs also discovered a lack of faith among women in the complaints system, with six in 10 telling the survey they did not report bullying, harassment or discrimination. Of those who did complain, a third rated the experience “extremely poor”.
Serious problems were also identified with the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, often compounding the trauma for victims.
In confidential and public evidence, servicewomen recounted a reluctance in the chain of command to report sexual assaults to the service police – despite the obligation to do so.
Atherton, a female veteran, said: “We heard accusations of senior officers sweeping complaints under the rug to protect their own reputations and careers. While many commanding officers want to do the right thing, it is clear that, too often, female service personnel are being let down by the chain of command.”
The parliamentary report advocates removing the chain of command from dealing with complaints of a sexual nature and replacing it with a new authority. It also urges the MoD to transfer cases of rape and sexual assault from the military justice system to the civilian court system. Statistics reveal lower conviction rates than in civilian courts, especially for rape.
Between 2015 and 2020, the average conviction rate for rape in regular courts, according to government data, was approximately 34%, more than twice that – 16% – for rape cases in military courts. Atherton said: “Military women are being denied justice. It is clear to us that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the court martial system.”
More than 3,000 respondents – around 84% – reported that women face additional challenges compared with men although nearly 90% said they would recommend the armed forces as a career.
The committee also identified a number of other areas of concern, saying it was “extraordinary” the MoD was still not getting basics like uniforms and equipment right.
The report includes stories of armoured plates restricting movement, oversized helmets restricting vision, and servicewomen deliberately dehydrating themselves due to limited systems for female urination.
It added that on recruitment of women, progress had been “glacial”.