Female soldier who fought in Afghanistan reveals level of sexual abuse within the Army

'Emma' tells Alex Hartley about her experience in the military and the lack of support she received after being sexually assaulted.

A female veteran has spoken for the first time about the misogyny, bullying and sexual assault she claimed she faced while serving in the Army.

Emma [not her real name], from West Wales, joined the Army at the age of 16. She has told ITV News, the military is “not a safe environment for women” and said due to the experiences she encountered, she would encourage others not to join. 

It comes as a charity, Salute Her UK, representing female veterans from all three services in England and Wales says one in four women have been sexually assaulted whilst serving. 

"I felt intimidated, I felt vulnerable”

During her 17-year career, Emma climbed the ranks and fought on operational and humanitarian tours in places like Afghanistan and Kenya. 

She claims throughout her career, she was subjected to bullying, harrassment, sexual discrimination and even sexual assault.

"There was always a lot of banter in the military, but there were times when it was taken too far”, she said. 

“My body shape was commented on. There was a lot of harassment and inappropriate behaviour, like being groped - which was often deemed ok if there was alcohol involved.

Emma has spoken to Alex Hartley about her ordeal and why things need to change in the armed forces.

“There were incidents where males would come into female shower areas when we were on operations and it was something we had to accept and deal with. But it caused so much vulnerability and anxiety. 

“I've been screamed at and even spat at, where male soldiers would deem it acceptable to do that to a woman. It never seemed to happen to any male peers."

On one occasion whilst on tour, Emma was sexually assaulted in the back of a vehicle.  

When she tried to report it, she claims it was brushed under the carpet. 

"I was trapped in a vehicle with a male when the incident occurred. I did report it but there was no formal action taken. It was just brushed under the carpet. The man involved kept his job and stayed in post and I was told to get on with mine."

Emma said the incidents along with a lack of support had an impact on her mental health. 

"I felt intimidated, I felt vulnerable. I felt I had no support. I felt like I'd been shamed and made to feel guilty for trying to report it. I was scared of being ostracised and I felt very very isolated."

Salute Her UK, is the only UK gender-specific support service to offer therapy and interventions for survivors of in-service sexual abuse.  

It says research shows Emma is among one in four female veterans across all military services who have experienced military sexual trauma.

  • What is Military Sexual Trauma?

Military sexual trauma refers to sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during active military service.

Salute Her UK, represents more than 3,000 women across the RAF, Navy and Army. It says one in four women claim they have experienced MST. 

More than half (52%) claim they were raped.

CEO Paula Edwards said most cases of MST go unreported due to a lack of support within the military - and a fear that careers will be affected.

She said, “A lot of women don't report what's happened to them, because they feel like they're going to be punished, they feel unsupported, they won't get the right help they need and if they do say something, it ends their military career.  

“So a lot of women we work with don't report what's happened to them because they don't feel the systems are there to support them.”

Emma has been working with Re-live charity in Wales, who support veterans dealing with trauma through art.

Emma has been using art to help her with her trauma.

She recently worked with an artist to create a comic to express some of her day-to-day experiences and she hopes sharing her experience with help other women reach out for support.

"In the military, a lot of this abuse gets normalised. A lot of women don't recognise it as abuse or report it and there's often no support.  But it builds up and has a huge impact on your life. 

“I want my story to highlight to other women that this goes on and I want other women to reach out for support because I know there are others women who have experienced this and much worse, who aren't getting the support they need." 

“Some of the evidence… suggests the culture hasn't changed”

Karin Diamond from the charity Re-Live.

Karin Diamond, CEO of charity Re-Live added, "We very rarely get to hear the stories of women veterans. We hope by sharing this comic with the general public, it will start to raise awareness of what so many women who serve in the military are going through every day."

Wrexham MP, Sarah Atherton led an inquiry into the female experience in the military which was published in 2021. It provided several recommendations to improve the support for female servicewomen. 

However, she said she felt the changes have not come quickly enough.

Ms Atherton told ITV News: "It's been two years now and some of the evidence that has come back to me suggests the culture hasn't changed.

"In fact, I feel the forced new mandatory training has backfired. The whole culture needs to change. That isn't going to happen overnight, but the training needs to be looked at to make sure outcomes change."

Sarah Atherton MP has been working to improve the situation for female service personnel.

She has just launched an All Party Parliamentary Group looking at Women in Defence and aims to carry out another review before the end of the year.

In response to the situation, the ministry of Defence said they have a zero tolerance approach to such behaviours and they are making changes to ensure all serious complaints are fully investigated. 

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said, “We are committed to preventing unacceptable behaviours from occurring and we have zero-tolerance for such behaviour.

“We are making the changes required to create an inclusive environment for all, and have introduced zero-tolerance policies, created the Defence Serious Crime Unit – ensuring all serious sexual complaints are fully investigated outside the chain of command – and have continued to improve reporting mechanisms.”

If you've been affected by any of the issues concerning military sexual assault or trauma, you can find more information about help available through the following links:

If you have a story in relation to this issue you would like to share, please get in touch: alexandra.hartley@itv.com