AOAV: all our reportsMilitarism examinedMedia, culture and armed violenceImpact of explosive violence on civilians

Ongoing concerns of sexual violence in the British Military: a review

It’s been a year since the then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, told the BBC that the British military had an “extraordinarily long way” to go on issues of gender-based violence. It was an admission that followed an award-winning investigation by The Sunday Times into the alleged rape and murder of Kenyan sex worker Agnes Wanjiru by a British soldier. 

But 12 months since the most senior officer in the British Armed Forces made this declaration, not even a small distance towards reform seems to have been travelled. 

As the Government hosts a summit on rape in conflict zones, we set out to catalogue recent reports of alleged and proven incidents of gender-based violence committed by British military personnel in the UK and around the world – from veterans murdering their wives, to soldiers raping civilian women, sexually assaulting children, and harassing their colleagues. 

Through analysis of local and national news reports, this newspaper has found at least 12 incidents of military men being accused of, arrested for, or convicted of rape, sexual assault, or offences involving child sexual abuse, since January this year. These findings are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. 

We also note how, in 2011, a soldier deployed in Afghanistan was found to have sexually assaulted a four-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl by forcibly placing their hands on his genitals.

The incidents – first exposed by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) – took place on two separate occasions within two weeks but only came to light in 2022. Having pleaded guilty to two charges of conduct to the prejudice of good order and service discipline, the soldier paid a fine of £1,000. There was no evidence he was demoted or fired.

As the Government welcomes dignitaries and activists from around the world to tackle sexual violence in conflict zones, it should be asked: how guilty is Britain’s military? 

A Culture of Male Supremacy

It feels odd to begin with an example of ostensibly consensual sex – an ‘orgy’ between military men and a civilian woman, first reported by The Times earlier this year, and an event that led to the men involved being banned from military deployment to the Balkans. But the incident itself – almost a dozen men filmed having sex with an unidentified woman and widely shared on social media – speaks of a concerning pattern of male sexual entitlement in the armed forces: a machismo culture that seeks to denigrate women, including through sex. 

Footage from the event even shows a man saluting to the camera while having sex. It suggests an act that was not about mutuality or even shared pleasure, but of a culture of men demeaning and degrading a woman, while glorifying in their versions of hyper-masculinity with one another. 

The mask slips in such moments. The military might continue to claim it defends and promotes an idea of British values around the world, including a paternalistic approach to women’s and children’s rights. But within its barracks, men rejoice in treating women as inferior – as objects to use and mock.

When it comes to gender-based violence, the situation gets even darker. 

The same month of the orgy revelations, a British army medic Peter Harries was jailed after he attempted to “buy” the virginity of a 12-year-old girl for £300. His interactions with what he thought was a child “selling” her virginity were, in fact, with undercover police officers. He also offered to pay her £5 for naked photos and £10 for videos. 

There have been 100 investigations into cases of military personnel viewing images of child sexual abuse in the past four years. 

A month earlier, in May this year, an army corporal was accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague and pestering her for naked photos. He denies the allegations. The same month, in a separate incident, it was reported a soldier allegedly sexually assaulted two female colleagues, hours after joking about “molesting” the pair. 

In April this year, a British Army Gurhka was jailed for six months after sexually assaulting a cleaner. In February, a British corporal based in Germany was jailed after sexually assaulting a male colleague. He told his victim to imagine he was a “girl from back home”. 

In November, a top navy officer was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a young sailor. Another sailor was found guilty of sexually assaulting a young female colleague the same month. In October, a British sailor was arrested after being accused of raping a female 16-year-old British tourist while deployed in Cyprus, and at the same time a senior navy official was suspended for sending inappropriate texts to a junior member of staff.

Boozy parties” were blamed in August when an alleged sexual assault in the Navy emerged. In Amsterdam in the summer, a “boozy night” also ended with a sailor being accused sexually assaulting a colleague. It should be noted that alcohol does not cause sexual violence.

We found more examples, but the above provide a snapshot of allegations of, and arrests and convictions for, sexual violence in just this year alone. 

Overall, reports of sex attacks in the Army have doubled in a decade, despite the Ministry of Defence (MoD) committing to take “decisive action” to end sex attacks. Reports have emerged of one in 10 teenage girls having been sexually assaulted when serving in the Army, and one in seven women in the British military having been subjected to sexual harassment. The military launched a Defence Strategy on Tackling Sexual Offending in July.

A recent report on BBC’s Woman’s Hour revealed how a woman serving on a naval submarine was raped, became pregnant, and was advised to have an abortion. 

Most shockingly, between 2010 and 2019, 41 women have been murdered by serving members of the armed forces, or by veterans. This does not include the murder of a Thai sex worker in 2020, by a veteran. Meanwhile, it has been found that only two in 10 rape charges tried by military courts result in a conviction. 

This failure to hold men to account was powerfully expressed by RAF rape victim Helen Bolland, who has spoken about her anger at lack of support from the MoD. 

Such figures offer little comfort to alleged victims, including a Dutch woman who served in her country’s navy, and who alleges she was raped by a British Naval Officer when she was 19. Her allegations are being investigated by the British military police. “This investigation is currently ongoing and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further,” said an MoD spokesperson.

But what happens when those expected to hold abusers to account are guilty themselves?

In January, a Royal Military Police Officer was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman by placing his penis on her shoulder. The military is introducing a Defence Serious Crime Unit to improve standards of serious crime investigation in the Service Justice System. 

A Culture of White Male Supremacy

The rape and killing of the 21-year-old Kenyan hairdresser Agnes Wanjiru shone a light on a culture of impunity and cover-up in the British Armed Forces. Evidence reported by this newspaper showed that the death was discussed and mocked on social forums at the time.

But since such revelations, it appears little has changed. Wanjiru’s alleged killer remains free and has not been interviewed. It is understood that the Ministry of Defence has yet to send an official Royal Military Police contingent to Kenya to investigate the death. Wanjiru’s sister and daughter are no closer to justice. 

“The jurisdiction for this investigation lies with the Kenyan Police Service,” an MoD spokesperson said. “The Royal Military Police are proactively engaged with the Kenyan Police Service to support and assist their investigation and, where appropriate and requested to do so, undertake investigative actions on their behalf.

“A number of formal and informal discussions have taken place, however, to protect the independence of the investigation and the interest of justice, we will not comment in detail on activity.”

The treatment of Wanjiru was extreme, but sexual harassment of women around the British barracks in Kenya was not a one-off incident. Last year, local news reported how a British soldier lifted up the skirt of a young Kenyan woman, who received compensation as a result. 

More disturbingly were the allegations that emerged in the early-2000s, with more than 2,000 Kenyan women claiming they were raped by British military personnel over a period of 30 years. An investigation by the UK armed forces found that there was “no reliable evidence to support any single allegation” and said the women had “fabricated” their stories. There were reports that sex workers were “pressured” into alleging rape. 

The women responded at the time by saying that “the British army does not accept that they are responsible for the sexual attacks against us”. Kenyan Member of Parliament Paul Muite told reporters that “from the evidence we have independently gathered so far, the Royal Military Police were more intent on covering up than in genuine impartial investigations”. 

They subsequently launched a civil case. 

An MOD spokesperson said: “Any allegation – historic or current – that is reported will be investigated, and where appropriate action will be taken, because these offences have absolutely no place in the Armed Forces.

“We continue to make reforms to the Service Justice System and its investigatory capabilities to ensure they remain fit for purpose. These include legislative changes in the Armed Forces Act 2021, as well as the Henriques Review of investigations on overseas operations and the establishment of the tri-service Defence Serious Crime Unit.

“Further to this, our new zero tolerance policies will ensure that anyone convicted of a sexual offence, or any other unacceptable sexual behaviour, will be dismissed from service.

“We continue to improve reporting mechanisms so personnel feel safe in raising issues, and have ensured that complaints of bullying, harassment or discrimination are now dealt with by someone outside an individual’s chain of command.”

This article was first published in the Byline Times.