Men and women alike take great pride in the opportunity to join the military and serve their country. And while women are still vastly outnumbered in the Armed Forces, there have been clear efforts to increase female recruitment, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announcing a target for women to account for 30% of recruits by 2030. Yet a recent report has revealed that bullying and sexual harassment in the Armed Forces is alarmingly common, and disproportionately affects women.
In fact, the report – a triannual survey of regular and full-time reservists – points towards a significant increase in targeted sexualised behaviours, including coercive sexual favours and assault. You can read further details of the findings below, plus key debates that have emerged from similar reports and how the MoD has responded.
Record levels of bullying and sexual assault
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the survey respondents were only a sample of those working in the Armed Forces, not the entire population. But the authors of the survey are confident that the findings can be considered reflective of the wider workforce.
If they’re correct, the story is a bleak one. Some 35% of servicewomen reported suffering a ‘particularly upsetting experience’ in the previous 12 months, up from 15% in 2018. 13% of men said the same, rising from 2% in the last survey. Such experiences range from receiving unsolicited sexually explicit material to unwanted touching and even rape.
Those most likely to have received such treatment were younger people, including teenagers in their first or first few years of service. Of only 290 teenage girls enlisted during the period of the survey, over 1 in 10 said they had been assaulted in some way.
Most victims (65%) didn’t tell anyone about their experience due to reasons such as lacking confidence in the justice system and fearing negative career impacts. Many of those who did make formal reports, meanwhile, were dissatisfied with the speed and outcome of any investigation.
Should allegations be passed on to civilian courts?
It’s important to consider that many of the experiences described above constitute criminal offences. Ordinarily, these would be dealt with firmly in the civilian courts. But the Armed Forces employs its own justice system and has come under increased scrutiny in recent times.
There have been long-standing calls to move sexual offences into the civilian system due to doubts surrounding conviction rates, which have historically been far lower in the military system. For some, this points towards serious flaws in investigation and prosecution processes. And we now know that such trends are contributing to low reporting rates among victims of sexual offences.
There are still options, including contacting external military solicitors to support their case. But critics suggest the military’s justice system, if it is to remain, should instil enough confidence to avoid such routes.
The MoD’s response
In late 2021, the MoD responded to a similar report by implementing some changes and speeding up others. This included improving how they handle harassment complaints and removing the complainant’s direct chain of command from the process.
Such moves were welcomed, however the MoD also stated that cases of sexual harassment and rape involving serving soldiers would still be heard in the military courts.
So while the matter has become a higher priority internally, for many it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do to improve the experiences of women in the Armed Forces.