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Recent action in research, policy, and practice for ex-Servicewomen.

Until recently, only limited research, policy, and practical attention had been paid to the experiences and support needs of ex-Servicewomen. In the past six months, however, we have seen three exciting and important developments: at the end of 2022, the Centre for Military Women’s Research (CMWR) was established at Anglia Ruskin University; in late March 2023, the Office for Veterans Affairs (OVA) announced it would be developing a Women Veterans’ Strategy; and, at the beginning of May 2023, the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association (WRAC) alongside the Cobseo Female Veterans cluster received funding of £300,000 for the Female Veterans Transformation Programme to deliver systemic change in access to and delivery of support services for ex-Servicewomen.

In the three years prior to these developments, there was a steadily growing interest in understanding the lives and needs of UK ex-Servicewomen – an interest which would provide the evidence-base required to support the development of the CMWR, the Women Veterans Strategy, and the Female Veterans Transformation Programme. In 2020, a scoping review (‘We also Served’) identified only 50 research papers about military health and wellbeing which included UK ex-Servicewomen. This figure stands in stark contrast to the many hundreds of published research papers that have focused purely on the health and wellbeing of UK male Serving personnel and ex-Servicemen. In addition to insight provided by the ‘We also served’ scoping review, the UK government released the findings from its Defence Sub-Committee on women in the Armed Forces in 2021. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government funded an investigation in 2022 to gain better understanding of what ex-Servicewomen from Wales have experienced while serving and during transition.

Across all three of these reports, in-Service challenges (including their potential impact during and after Service) as well as additional transition and post-Service difficulties experienced by ex-Servicewomen were identified consistently. Bullying, harassment, and discrimination (BHD), including sexual harassment and assault, were among the most frequently reported difficulties. These challenges were identified as being compounded by an extremely poor complaints and reporting system, with evidence suggesting that many reports were ‘swept under the carpet’. Many incidences of BHD remain unreported – meaning their prevalence is likely higher than noted in these reports – while those that are brought to the authorities’ attention are often not dealt with appropriately. The performers of such behaviours are therefore neither held accountable nor deterred from becoming repeat offenders.

The three reports further highlight the extent to which the military is ‘a man’s world’. Notably, they feature numerous accounts of inappropriate and/or ill-fitting uniforms and body armour for Servicewomen. Together, these revelations serve to highlight the current male-centric nature of the UK Armed Forces while also highlighting the additional (and often easily avoidable) risks which Servicewomen in combat roles face. Female Service personnel are also expected to accommodate masculine banter as well as gender stereotyping and sexism. Additionally, Servicewomen who decide to have children often face career sacrifices disproportionate to Servicemen with children. Among mid-ranking Officers, 90% of men have children compared to only 10% of women.

Despite these challenges, many ex-Servicewomen have made successful post-Service transitions. Nevertheless, there is emerging evidence to suggest that some ex-Servicewomen are living with the legacy of their in-Service experiences and the continuation of a male-centric system. For example, the Defence Committee report noted that existing transition services are very male-focused, with three quarters of the Serving and ex-Servicewomen who responded to their questionnaire reporting that the Ministry of Defence was not helpful in their transition. What is more, over half of the respondents reported that their needs were not met by current veteran services and that there are currently very few women specific veteran services. The ‘We also Served’ report indicates that, in addition to limited women specific services, ex-Servicewomen are less likely to identify as a veteran compared to ex-Servicemen – a phenomenon which likely reflects the potentially detrimental impact of masculine military culture upon ex-Servicewomen’s sense of self and identity. The Welsh government report also found that many ex-Servicewomen feel invisible due to an implicit reluctance by both members of the public and support providers to recognise their status as veterans. There is an additional indication that ex-Servicewomen are less likely to access support as they transition out of Service.

The We also Served report also provides emerging evidence of differences between ex-Servicewomen and ex-Servicemen, as well as ex-Servicewomen and civilian women, with respect to physical health, mental health, employment, and relationships. Some of the report’s key findings include that military woman conveyed higher rates of hazardous drinking, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts compared to civilian women, but lower self-harm and suicide compared to ex-Servicemen. Research conducted in 2021 by Combat Stress and the King’s Centre for Military Health Research indicates that there is a high prevalence of reported mental health difficulties amongst ex-Servicewomen, including common mental health difficulties (e.g., depression, anxiety) and PTSD. Ex-Servicewomen who were older, not working, held a lower rank during Service, perceived that they had low social support, and experienced greater loneliness were more likely to report such difficulties.

The OVA Women Veteran’s Strategy is taking a snapshot of what we currently know about ex-Servicewomen’s experiences, including how they differ to ex-Servicemen, what ex-Servicewomen’s transition journeys looked like, and what might restrict or deter ex-Servicewomen accessing support. The OVA previously funded three studies which are all due to be completed in the next few months. These studies will provide new data and understanding to help shape the development of the Strategy which aims to bring current understanding together to move the agenda for ex-Servicewomen forward. This includes looking up-stream to in-Service experiences and their impact on post-service life. The Women’s Strategy is due for completion late 2023.

While the Women’s Strategy is bringing existing knowledge together, greater understanding of how in-Service experiences and culture affect the post-Service life of ex-Servicewomen and their health and wellbeing needs is needed through new collaborative research. The creation of the CMWR is a great step towards this outcome. The Centre’s core mission is to inform and improve the wellbeing of women in the military and veteran community through world leading collaborative research and evaluation. The Centre is already undertaking several high-quality research projects to deepen our understanding and improve provision for women in the military and veteran community. The Centre also plans to host a conference in 2023. You can find out more about the Centre, its research, how to get involved, and upcoming events here.

Moving to think about improvements in the provision of support services, the Female Veterans Transformation Programme aims to work collaboratively across the Armed Forces sector to embed the needs of ex-Servicewomen into the design of support services, increase access to and the uptake of veteran-focused services by ex-Servicewomen, and significantly improve outcomes for ex-Servicewomen across all aspects of their transition. This project will be delivered over the next three years by the WRAC and Cobseo and will focus on achieving enduring change for ex-Servicewomen.

Together, these three advancements are set to make a positive difference for ex-Servicewomen. But it remains imperative that ex-Servicewomen are not seen as a homogenous group and that issues of intersectionality and other nuanced experiences among ex-Servicewomen are considered across research, policy, and practice. In addition, these three initiatives are not the only projects and pieces of work currently underway focused on ex-Servicewomen – to learn about other research currently being conducted with ex-Servicewomen, head to our ongoing research page. Finally, while this article has focused on three core reports, other published research and reports are available that provide additional emerging evidence across different topics related to ex-Servicewomen. These are available via our research repository.

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