Skip to main content

Report: Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life

25 July 2021

The Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces publishes its report “Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life".

The inquiry is one of the most important in the Committee’s history, with the Sub-Committee receiving an almost unprecedented level of engagement. Around one in ten female personnel currently serving in the Regulars contributed to the inquiry. It is also the first of its kind, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) lifting the usual restrictions that prevent service personnel from contributing to inquiries.

The report finds that the MoD and Services are failing to protect female personnel and to help servicewomen achieve their full potential. Whilst most servicewomen and female veterans we consulted (nearly 90 percent of respondents to our survey) would recommend the Armed Forces as a career, more than 3,000 (around 84 percent) reported that female service personnel face additional challenges relative to their male counterparts.

Bullying, harassment, discrimination (BHD) and sexual behaviours

In the Committee’s survey, 64 percent of female veterans and 58 percent of currently-serving women reported experiencing BHD during their careers. The MoD’s representative statistics show that BHD and sexual harassment are gendered. The inquiry heard truly shocking evidence of the bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape experienced by servicewomen. At the same time, the majority of our survey respondents do not believe the military does enough to address BHD, even if things are better than they once were.

The Committee discovered a lack of faith in the Complaints system. Our survey found that six in ten women did not report the BHD they experienced. Of those who did complain, one third rated the experience “extremely poor”.

The Committee recommends that the MoD create a specialised Defence Authority to handle BHD complaints and that the MoD better resource the Service Complaints Ombudsman and make their decisions binding. It urges the MoD to reverse the recent decision to reduce the appeals period from six weeks to two.

The report also finds serious problems with the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, which sometimes exacerbates trauma for victims. The Committee urges the MoD to remove cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts and the Service Justice System, and instead hand these over to the civilian court system. The chain of command should also be removed entirely from complaints of a sexual nature.

Daily challenges persist

The report found that servicewomen face numerous practical challenges, some of which place them in danger of life-threatening injuries. The Committee finds it “extraordinary” that the MoD is 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. The Committee urges the MoD to replace ill-fitting uniform and equipment, and to give better consideration to women’s health issues.

On recruitment, the report concludes that progress has been ‘glacial’. Even after they leave, female veterans, like all veterans, live with the legacy of their Service. In our survey, three-quarters of female veteran respondents said the MoD was not helpful in their transition; over half said that their needs are not being met by current veteran services.

The Committee implores the MoD and Services to make progress on all these issues, not only for the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but also because our British values of fairness, equality and justice demand it.

Chair of the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces and female veteran, Sarah Atherton MP, said:

“Women are integral to our military’s success and our country’s security, yet women in the Armed Forces carry additional burdens to that of their male colleagues. Women face barriers to promotion, issues with families and childcare, abuse and inappropriate behaviours, and an overrepresentation in the Service Complaints system. Female veterans face distinctive challenges when transitioning into civilian life and have specific needs, different to male veterans, that cannot be dealt with by broad-brush, one-size-fits-all veterans’ services.

“Unfortunately, the stories we heard paint a difficult picture for women in the military. Accounts of bullying, harassment, discrimination, ‘laddish’ behaviour, and sometimes serious sexual assault and rape. The Complaints system, as it stands, is woefully inadequate and leaves most feeling unable to come forward. We also 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.

“Sexual assault and rape are amongst the most serious offences committed against female service personnel and discussed in this report. It is difficult not to be moved by the stories of trauma, both emotional and physical, suffered by women at the hands of their colleagues. A woman raped in the military often then has to live and work with the accused perpetrator, with fears that speaking out would damage her career prospects. Our recommendations attempt to mitigate this and ask the Ministry of Defence to tackle the issue of criminal behaviour head on. From our evidence, it is clear to us that serious sexual offenses 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.

“I am delighted that the Ministry of Defence now acknowledges the serious issue of rape and sexual assault in the military. There is no doubt the recent written statement is in direct response to our inquiry and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will demonstrate ambition and act on the recommendations in this report. It is incumbent on all of us, to work together, to achieve better outcomes for servicewomen.

“The British military is one of the most capable and formidable fighting forces in the world, priding itself on its ability to modernise. This is starting to show – with flexible service being rolled out and new childcare for serving families. Yet it is clear that further changes must be made.

“The military has come a long way in recent years, with all ranks now open to female service personnel. However, it is clear to us that the military is, in many ways, a man’s world. Even on some fundamentals – armour, sanitary products, and adequate healthcare – the Ministry of Defence is letting female personnel down. For instance, servicewomen are being sent to fight on the frontline in ill-fitting protective armour. This neglects the military’s duty of care and places women’s lives at risk, whilst also having a major impact on operational effectiveness.

“It is telling that, despite some horror stories that the Committee heard, nine out of ten female service personnel we spoke to during this inquiry said they would recommend a career in the military, as I would. Now that the issues for military women have been exposed, it is time we started to protect those who protect us and make changes that better our Armed Forces, for all who serve.

“As a veteran myself, it was important that we undertook this ground-breaking piece of work, the first of its kind. Around 4,200 women, amounting to nine percent of the regular female military population, contributed to this inquiry. I am extremely grateful to those women who came forward. Your voices have been heard.”

Chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, said:

“The importance of the contribution that servicewomen make to the military, and to the country as a whole, cannot be overstated. It is clear from this report that more can, and should, be done to protect and provide for servicewomen and female veterans, who have, far too often, been let down by the Ministry of Defence. Where there has been injustice, rectifications must be made.

“The issue of sexual assault and rape in the military is pressing. It is somewhat disconcerting that, in its recent statement, the Ministry of Defence seems selective in the data it uses. Our Sub-Committee has conducted in-depth research, over several months, on the issue of sexual assault and rape, and has an accurate and honest understanding of the problems women face. This is not a race to the bottom or a matter of saving face. We should place the issue itself at the heart of our work.

“I would like to thank Sarah and the team, who have done a fantastic job of leading this Sub-Committee.”

Further information

Image: Crown copyright