The Government’s proposals to reduce human rights protections in the UK will have serious consequences for women in the Armed Forces and their families
It’s been an eventful year. Since the last International Women’s Day, the Armed Forces has had to engage with the Defence Inquiry into Women in the Armed Forces and has seen pass into law the latest iteration of the Armed Forces Act with its particular focus on how the most serious sexual offences committed in the military, including rape, ought to be dealt with. People in the Armed Forces, politicians and the public have engaged with the issue like never before.
It’s worth pausing to reflect on some of the progress that has undoubtedly been made in recent years.
In 2018, and following years of lobbying by the Deepcut families and the sister of the late Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement, and after the threat of judicial review from a sexual assault survivor in the Army, the Government finally agreed to remove the power of a Commanding Officer to investigate a sexual assault for him/herself – as of 2018, they must now, as a matter of law, refer it to the Service Police.
In 2020, an independent service justice review led by Judge Shawn Lyons and Sir Jon Murphy identified major problems with the way in which the service justice system deals with sexual offending and made lots of recommendations for change – many of which were accepted by the Defence Secretary (though the main one, of handing serious sexual offences over to civilian authorities, was not). Recommendations that were accepted included the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner to oversee the Service Police, bringing them more in line with arrangements for the oversight of the civilian police; and a range of improvements to victims services. These kinds of reforms are likely to be particularly beneficial to victims of sexual crimes, a disproportionate number of whom are women.
In 2021, the Defence Inquiry on Women heard from more than 4000 service women who told their stories of service life which ranged from having to endure ill-fitting body armour, to unacceptable sexual harassment inside their units, to serious failings in the handling of sexual assault reports. The report led to a great many important recommendations and enabled a spotlight to be shone on the unacceptable behaviours to which women have been subjected in the Armed Forces too long. It drew strong statements from the heads of the single services and the Defence Secretary that such behaviour would no longer be tolerated.
A legal challenge bought by 3 rape survivors forced the Defence Secretary to issue a new policy reminding all service personnel of their right to report serious sexual offences to the civilian police; triggered a review of all sexual assault policies; and got the issue of how serious sexual assault cases are handled before Parliament.
These achievements are considerable. They have all been made possible because of the determination of the women themselves to stand up to poor behaviour, seek accountability for criminal conduct and make things better for the service men and women coming after them. As Lt Col Diane Allen has put it, the Armed Forces needed its own MeToo movement and to some extent in the last couple of years, it has had one.
But only to some extent. The true attitudes of so many can be seen in the childish response of one senior officer who, according to Sarah Atherton MP, reportedly dismissed the Defence Inquiry on Women as ‘virtue signalling’. This common and lazy insult is not infrequently directed at those that are trying to support women and men to redress the imbalance a little, providing further evidence, as if any were needed, of what the MoD itself has described the pervasive ‘white male prototype’ that is so undermining of inclusion. Rape prosecution rates at court martial remain far lower than in the already-unacceptably-poor civilian system. Our small charity sees through its work the culture of disbelief that so often greets women reporting serious sexual harassment or sexual assaults and the dreadful impact those experiences can have on careers and lives. There is still a very long way to go. According to the MoD it may take another 300 years before there is gender equality in the Armed Forces.
Worst of all, the Government’s current plans to reform the Human Rights Act risks causing such progress as there has been, to stall. All of the strategic litigation that has been brought by women in the Armed Forces seeking to challenge unacceptable policies and practices has relied to a greater or lesser extent on the Human Rights Act – a vital piece of legislation designed to protect and support those for whom the state looms large in their lives. Its removal or significant amendment would have serious implications for the Armed Forces and their families and especially women. This International Women’s Day, which is, ironically, the deadline for responding to the Government’s consultation proposals on the reform of the HRA, it is worth making that point. Diluting human rights protection will have serious consequences for women inside the Armed Forces and beyond.