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The Lost Heroines: Do Women Really Have a Voice?

The 8th March 2021 marked International Women’s Day, with this years’ theme being to #choosetochallenge.  The day was all about empowering women.  Celebrating all that they have achieved.  On the same day, a hotly anticipated Oprah interview involving Meghan Markle was televised on TV where she bravely spoke out about the racism and mental health struggles she had suffered as a new member of the Royal Family.  She was brandished a liar by the British press.  Two days later we heard the devastating news that a young women, Sarah Everard, had been cruelly kidnapped and murdered by a member of the Met Police.  She was just walking home.  Some said that if a woman chooses to walk home alone then they put themselves at risk.  Why is it not ok for a woman to speak out when she has been treated wrongly?  Why is it still not safe for a woman to walk home alone at night?

This is not good enough.

Women are still under-represented in society.  They are still unequal.  Their voice still isn’t loud enough; and this is no better demonstrated than in the British Armed Forces.  Women make up just 12% of the British Army yet incidents of harassment, sexual assault and violence are far greater than those experienced by their male counter-parts.  Reporting of offences are low and criminal convictions even lower.

The Lost Heroines Campaign

2018 was a historical year for the British Armed Forces.  By the end of 2018, for the first time ever, every role in the Armed Forces was to be open to women.  This signified a massive step towards equality for women and was an acknowledgment of the huge contribution which women have given to the Forces.

Yet in the same year the Army Sexual Harassment Report was published, based on over 4,700 surveyed, against the background of the global “#metoo” and “time’s up” campaigns which highlighted sexual harassment, assault and abuse.

The survey highlighted a number of things including:

  • Almost 9 out of 10 service personnel reported being told sexual jokes and stories;
  • Junior ranking female personnel were most likely to experience unwanted targeted, sexualised behaviours.  In most cases men were solely responsible;
  • When asked in the survey why sexual harassment happens in the Army, the most common factors were the unequal ratio of men to women, the rank structure and the old fashioned attitudes held by some personnel.

Although the report indicated a greater awareness and understanding of what counts as sexual harassment, there was no doubt that more needed to be done to tackle the issue.

Having regard for the alarming findings of the report, Bolt Burdon Kemp launched their Lost Heroines Campaign to address the issue of sexual harassment in the Armed Forces and the impact of this on female service personnel in particular.  The full campaign can be read here.

The campaign revealed that female service personnel overwhelmingly believe that the British Armed Forces have a problem with sexual harassment.  Some of the conclusions from the campaign reveal why:

  • Shockingly, one in ten servicewomen reported being sexually assaulted;
  • Servicewomen were significantly more likely than servicemen to experience sexual harassment including:
  • Generalised sexual behaviours;
  • Targeted sexualised behaviours;
  • Aggravated behaviours such as sexual assault
  • In the year 2017, of 126 service complaints made relating to sexual harassment, 100 of them were made by women.

The campaign highlights that whilst it is a positive step that all roles in the Armed Forces are now open to women, signalling a move towards equality, the true picture painted by The Lost Heroines campaign is very different.  Female service personnel are still under-represented and they still face disproportionate incidents of discrimination and harassment which their male colleagues are simply not exposed to.  The loss to the military if women are discouraged from joining could be substantial.

Has enough changed?

It has been over two years since our Lost Heroines Campaign highlighted the sufferings of women in the Armed Forces.  But has enough changed since then?

In 2019, Salute Her, a charity that helps support and empower female Veterans, spoke with 100 female Veterans and found that 85% felt that they had been treated differently to their male counter-parts.  52% reported having been sexually assaulted and 26% reported that they were physically assaulted.  The cases which we as department deal with on a daily basis highlight that not enough has been done to protect those females currently serving in the Armed Forces.

The Commons Defence Committee have opened up a Parliamentary inquiry into the lives of women in the Armed Forces and Ahmed Al-Nahhas, Partner and Head of our military team has already given evidence at the Inquiry.  A blog outlining the written evidence which has been submitted can be found here.  Our evidence and the evidence given by many others highlights the bullying, discrimination and harassment which women still face in the Armed Forces, and many of our brave clients have come forward to speak up and share their stories, in the hope that it will result in change for others.  It will be interesting to see just how much change is brought about by the Inquiry but the chance for those at the receiving end of ill-treatment to have their voices heard is a welcome step in the right direction.

Women have fought so hard to be recognised and valued, not only in the Armed Forces but in society in general, but the latest evidence before the Commons Defence Committee strongly suggests that there is much more that needs to be done.

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