The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge’, rooted in the idea of standing up to call out gender inequality and bias, and celebrating women’s achievements. This feels like a particularly appropriate theme for the armed forces this year, as the Defence Sub-Committee, led by Sarah Atherton MP, who is deeply committed to this issue, starts its important inquiry into the experiences of women in the armed forces.
Since establishing the Centre for Military Justice at the end of 2019, we have been fortunate to meet and work with a large number of servicewomen – all of whom without exception have a tremendous sense of service, drive and commitment. Notwithstanding their own often traumatic experiences, their guiding motivation remains to improve things for other servicewomen and to improve justice and accountability when things have gone wrong. In this way, brave women are taking forward complaints, bringing Human Rights Act claims, claims in the Employment Tribunal and even using public law to address systemic or policy failings. We are particularly privileged to be able to work alongside and in collaboration with fantastic charities run by women, for women: charities like Salute Her, which provides specialist therapeutic support to female veterans and Aurora New Dawn, which runs a specialist domestic abuse military service. We also acknowledge the important work of Lt Col (Ret’d) Diane Allen who continues to advocate for servicewomen and for improvements to Army policies for women.
The CMJ recognises that it only sees cases when something has gone badly wrong, and we acknowledge that there is a real desire within parts of the senior leadership to reform and change – but we can say with confidence that the experiences of far too many servicewomen remains completely unacceptable, marked by the nastiest and most extreme forms of gender discrimination, and has at its root the enormous problem of male violence against women, including sexual violence. There remains a series of obstacles to reform which must be addressed. The armed forces’ operational capability is dependent upon attracting and retaining servicewomen of high ability. A failure to address the causes of the kind of inequality experienced by servicewomen inevitably leads to high-ability women leaving prematurely, or choosing not to join in the first place. It also creates a situation in which really serious harm can be perpetrated against women with impunity, with career-ending and life-changing effects.
The Defence Committee Inquiry may provide an opportunity finally to call to account those within the defence establishment that remain resistant to change. For every step forward there always seems to be one or two steps back – see the apparent roll-back by the MoD’s decision to “accept in full” the Wigston recommendation for the creation of a new Defence Authority that would take responsibility for the handling of the most complex (including sex) discrimination and bullying complaints away from the single services; see the recent proposal to reduce appeal rights within the much-criticised service complaints system; see the re-packaging of a helpline which seems designed more to give the impression that something is being done, rather than actually doing the hard work that is needed. And see the continued, inexplicable, resistance by unaccountable senior men inside the defence establishment to the proposal that serious sexual offences should be handled in the civilian, not the military justice system.
Women in the armed forces are being increasingly supported to stand up, tell their stories and make the case for change. Listen to them. These women are taking the fight to the forces of reactionism inside the defence establishment. Let’s hope that 2021 is the year that kick starts a process of meaningful and sustainable change.