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British military conviction rates for rape at 23%, far lower than civilian courts’ 70%, amidst pervasive sexual abuse issues

An investigation by openDemocracy has uncovered the severe and pervasive issue of sexual abuse within the British military, revealing systemic failures in addressing and prosecuting these crimes. The investigation provides alarming statistics and personal testimonies that highlight the depth of the problem.

From January 2018 to April 2024, only 23% of the 93 rape cases heard in military court martials resulted in a guilty verdict. This conviction rate is starkly lower than the average 70% conviction rate for rape cases in civilian courts. Additionally, the report found that nearly a quarter of British court martials over the past six years have involved sexual offenses, including rape, child sex offenses, indecent exposure, and misconduct of an indecent kind.

Women make up just 11% of the British armed forces and hold only 5% of senior roles. This significant underrepresentation contributes to a culture where inappropriate behaviour is often normalised. Furthermore, women in the military are more likely to be medically discharged for mental health reasons, with sexual violence being a significant contributing factor.

The article reported on Jane, a pseudonym used to protect her identity, who joined the Royal Navy in her late twenties, eager to build a career. Within her first two years, she was raped twice but did not report the assaults due to fear and a lack of support. Nearly a decade later, she was sexually assaulted again by a senior male colleague. When she finally made a formal complaint in 2014, the backlash was severe. Jane was bullied by the man she had accused, and her colleagues closed ranks in support of him, attempting to discredit her.

The British military operates its own judiciary, the Services Justice System, which allows it to investigate crimes specific to the military and serious criminal conduct. However, the significantly lower conviction rates in military courts compared to civilian courts raise questions about the military justice system’s effectiveness and fairness. Despite being more likely to prosecute alleged rapes than the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the military is less likely to deliver a guilty verdict.

Jane’s experience in the report is held up as emblematic of the broader issue faced by women in the armed forces. The investigation also reveals that many servicewomen who accuse their colleagues of sexual offences are often forced to continue working with their abusers during the investigation. This situation can lead to further harassment and isolation, exacerbating their trauma.

The systemic nature of the issue is further highlighted by the testimony of other servicewomen in Sian Norris’ article. For example, Georgia Hinton waived her right to anonymity after being raped by a soldier in 2018. Although her rapist was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison after she reported the attack to civilian police, Hinton found the military obstructive in her search for justice. She emphasized that the military’s culture of silence and the close-knit nature of military communities make it difficult for victims to report crimes.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has implemented some measures to address these issues, such as banning all-male boards in court martials and introducing a zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable sexual behaviour. However, critics argue that these steps are insufficient and that more comprehensive reforms are needed to address the deeply ingrained issues within the military culture.

The report tells how Jane finally left the forces in 2018 following a medical discharge. She struggled with PTSD and depression, conditions exacerbated by the sexual violence and subsequent institutional betrayal she experienced. More women leave the armed forces each year than join, with many citing sexual violence and harassment as significant factors.

The investigation by Open Democracy calls for a reevaluation of the military justice system and greater efforts to transform the military’s misogynistic culture. The courage of servicewomen like Jane and Georgia Hinton in speaking out underscores the urgent need for systemic change to protect military personnel from sexual violence and ensure justice for victims.