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MoD’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment faces challenges amidst persistent cultural issues

MoD, sexual harassment, armed forces, zero-tolerance policy, cultural issues, military culture, Defence Services Crime Unit, women's rights, military justice, policy implementation

In March 2022, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced a new Zero-Tolerance Policy for sexual offences in the armed forces. Under this policy, individuals found guilty of sexual offences are discharged from service. The policy also stipulates that sexual relationships between trainees and instructors are not allowed and will result in the instructor being discharged. This policy came into effect following a series of government-commissioned reports into issues of sexual harassment and abuse in the armed forces.

Reports and Recommendations
Following repeated allegations of harassment, abuse, and other inappropriate behaviours in the armed forces, a series of government-commissioned reports were conducted and published from 2019 to 2021. These reports focused specifically on inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces, the Service Justice System (SJS) that investigates these issues, and the experiences of women in the armed forces. Each of these reports noted what was described as ‘an unacceptable level of inappropriate behavior persisting throughout the armed forces.’ The reports identified problems of misogyny and sexual harassment within the armed forces alongside poor management of these issues.

The reports described an ‘overly sexualized’ culture throughout all service branches, which, when compounded by an existing ‘heavy drinking culture,’ led to a toxic environment and inappropriate behaviours. These reports found that, despite only making up 11 percent of personnel, a disproportionate number of women file formal complaints related to these issues and stated that misogyny was ingrained within the military’s culture. Of the 161 Service Police investigations into sexual offences conducted in 2020, 76 percent involved female victims while 93 percent of suspects were male. 

Each of the reports criticised the complaints processes and the SJS, identifying issues with the process and duration. The investigative processes were described as flawed, excessively lengthy, and often lacking in trauma-informed practices, causing continued harm to victims. The investigative and prosecution processes were marked by poor communication throughout. Many investigators were observed to lack the training and experience to handle cases of this nature. They also noted a lack of support for victims throughout the process.

The reports discussed the reluctance of individuals to come forward with reports due to concerns of bullying, ostracism in their unit, or potential damage to their careers – experiences that many women who have gone through the complaints process report having. Each report noted that many individuals were not aware that they could make use of civilian services – either for investigation and prosecution or for support services – believing cases had to be handled within military structures.

Investigative independence was noted as a major issue. In their recommendations, each report noted a need to remove the chain of command structure from the reporting and investigation process. Many women who proceeded with formal complaints reported hostility within their chain of command. The reports also analysed disparities in outcomes between the civilian court systems and court martial. This applies to both rape convictions, which in the civilian system are usually around 75 percent compared to the 35 percent rate at court martial, and other sexual assault charges.

The 2021 report on the experiences of women in the armed forces points to the particular difficulty of being sexually assaulted in the armed forces due the proximity of perpetrators to their victims in military settings. The report emphasised that this was complicated by the hierarchical military structures and the isolating effects of being on the outs with one’s unit. Many women who report being sexually assaulted or harassed often end up being medically discharged or otherwise leaving the service due to their experiences, often due to the strain on their mental health. 

While instances of sexual assault are the most blatant and severe issues experienced by women in the armed forces, the reports emphasize that these stem from a culture of hypermasculinity and misogyny. This misogyny is often borne out in the workplace in more subtle ways, including micromanaging, being excluded, and receiving unwanted and unnecessary comments. It notes that women, even in more senior positions, often report not receiving the same level of respect as their male counterparts of the same rank. The reports emphasise the need for more women in senior positions to help bring about cultural changes. Currently, there are only 24 women in high-ranking officer positions across all services. 

Government Actions and Remaining Challenges
Some of the reports’ recommendations were taken on by the former Conservative government. A tri-service Conduct, Equity, and Justice Directorate was established in 2021 to oversee policy implementation. Since 2021, investigations of sexual offences have taken place independent of the chain of command. The Defence Services Crime Unit was established in 2022 for this purpose. This unit has specialist teams that are trained to deal with sexual offences.

Sexual assault hotlines that provide support and advice have been established and are regularly advertised. A series of education and awareness campaigns have been launched in an effort to educate and combat sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, including mandatory bystander training. All service branches regularly conduct surveys and focus groups on sexual harassment. The Ministry of Defence has increased diversity initiatives and has set targets to increase the number of women at higher levels and the overall number of women serving in the armed forces. Each unit of the armed forces now has a trained diversity and inclusion officer to help handle and mitigate potential issues.

One recommendation that was continually given but repeatedly rejected by the former government was for serious military offences, such as murder and sexual assault, that occur in the UK to be investigated by the civilian services as a matter of practice. This was the regular practice until 2006 when the crimes were opened up to the SJS for particular scenarios, such as offences committed abroad or requiring military expertise. The SJS became the primary investigative body for these offences in the military, but this was never the intent of the change. 71 percent of the sexual offences investigated by the service police are alleged to have taken place in the UK. Despite the continued recommendation to reverse course on this matter, the former government continued to reject it up until July 2024 when they lost office.

Ongoing Issues
The most recent sexual harassment surveys, published in 2021, illustrate the disparity in the experiences of men and women. Depending on the service, 10-12 percent of female respondents reported being subject to personal sexual harassment in the service environment compared to just 0.4 – 0.5 percent of male respondents. The 2021 reports do indicate that ‘generalized sexual behaviors,’ such as telling sexual jokes, have decreased compared to 2018. They also note that those who find this behaviour to be offensive – both men and women – has decreased, which may indicate how normalised these behaviours are for both men and women in the armed forces. 

Despite the decrease in these behaviours, the reports note an increase in ‘targeted sexual behaviours’ such as unwanted touching compared to the 2018 survey. In the army, depending on the specific behaviour, 1.8 – 37 percent of female personnel reported experiencing targeted sexual behaviour compared to .9 – 15 percent of male personnel. According to the surveys, ‘particularly upsetting experiences’ had also increased from 2018 to 2021 for both genders (from 15 percent to 35 percent for women and from 2 percent to 13 percent for men). Though still ongoing, 284 sexual offences were investigated by the service police in 2023, a decrease from 2022 (342). Despite this decrease, the notable gender disparity remains, the majority of suspects were male while the majority of victims were female. 

In spite of the changes that have been put in place since the first report in 2019, there have continued to be reports of harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the intervening years. 

The Army, Royal Navy, and RAF have all been subject to serious allegations, including disclosures of rapes, assault, and harassment by superiors. In December 2021, a 19-year old soldier committed suicide following continued harassment by her superior. She had opted not to report this harassment due to the mishandling of an unrelated sexual assault complaint she had previously made. 

In 2022, allegations of numerous sexual offences against 16- and 17-year-old recruits at the Army Foundation College were made, including offences perpetrated by members of staff. 2021 saw nine investigations into offences against 22 recruits. Child Rights International Network notes that girls in the armed forces are two times as likely as their peers to report sexual assault or rape to the police. In 2021, more than 1 in 10 girls under the age of 18 in the armed forces reported experiencing sexual harassment. 

A Guardian report on the issue of misogyny in the armed forces reported that female personnel interviewed believed that the diversity and equality initiatives propped up in public discourse would not be truly effective. Many current and former female personnel reported scepticism at the new changes, noting that while positive on paper, they did not believe the policies would be truly effective due to the broader culture of the military.

Given the way female personnel are often treated, it is worth considering how civilian women are treated, particularly those in countries where overseas bases are located. There are extensive issues in this area. 

There is, for instance, a seeming widespread culture of soldiers visiting sex workers, particularly when stationed overseas and especially in ‘countries in poverty.’ The Ministry of Defence sought to combat this in 2022 by issuing an official ban on the ‘use’ of sex workers overseas. The MoD stated that the goal was to counteract poor attitudes toward and the exploitation of women. It is unclear if this ban has had any effect; but given some recent reports, it seems unlikely.

Women living near British overseas bases have reported ill treatment by military personnel, including reports of rape, assault, and children fathered by British soldiers who are consequently abandoned. The most harrowing example is the case of Agnes Wanjiru, a Kenyan woman who was murdered in 2012 by a British soldier. The case only came to light in the British press in 2021. As The Times reported, the soldier responsible confessed to his colleagues at the time, and the event was made known to superiors. Nothing had been done to date. 

Leaked WhatsApp and online chats indicate that in the years following, the murder had become something of a joke to some of the soldiers. No charges have yet been filed, and the army and MoD have said little of substance on the matter.

The MoD and higher-ups within these services continue to emphasise their commitment to change and their shock each time new allegations surface, but little seems to have substantially changed for women in the armed forces. This would indicate that these are broader and more entrenched cultural issues. This may well be the case, given that in the last year, allegations have emerged of harassment and misogyny within the Ministry of Defence itself. A letter signed by sixty senior women at the MoD cited numerous instances of harassment and inappropriate behaviour occurring in the workplace. This reveals just how deeply ingrained this cultural issue is. 

It is difficult to instlll cultural changes for the lower rank and file if the higher-ups cannot clean house and change their own culture. It is an ongoing issue and while it seems efforts might genuinely be being made, time will tell. The next Sexual Harassment Survey, conducted every three years, will likely be published sometime next year.