When will the abuse end for NZ's servicewomen?

Credit: Original article can be found here

Warning: the following article contains distressing content.

OPINION: A few years back, when the talk between my daughter and her friends was all about leaving school and “what next?” one of her besties told us, over dinner, she had been planning to join the forces.

We could immediately see how suited she was; intelligent, capable and strong both in body and in mind, she would have been an asset to the New Zealand Defence Force. Unfortunately a childhood medical condition ruled her out, and she was devastated. But that was years ago, she’s moved on and is in a happy place, and I, as a fond onlooker, am a little bit relieved that things worked out as they did.

Do not misunderstand me; I know women who’ve had hugely satisfying careers in the armed forces and have loved their service to Aotearoa. Or most of it, anyway. There are parts of being a woman in uniform that are degrading, humiliating and worse, and they do not need to be.

Ellen Nelson left the New Zealand Army in 2013 and started investigating why women in the army were leaving. Her research received a doctorate from Massey University.


Ellen Nelson left the New Zealand Army in 2013 and started investigating why women in the army were leaving. Her research received a doctorate from Massey University.

The revelations by Michelle Duff in Stuff on Sunday that half the NZ Army servicewomen surveyed by former officer Ellen Nelson have either been sexually assaulted or harassed, or witnessed that, in the space of just the last 12 months suggests something fundamental is broken in the way the forces view women.

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That might sound too sweeping a statement to you; but I’d argue there’s much of Nelson’s report – and not just the headline-grabbing stuff like sexual assault that happens almost routinely – that supports it. It’s the stuff that could sound trivial when taken on its own – like the uniforms that don’t fit women’s bodies. In what other portion of Army life and work are service people expected to carry out their duties with kit that is not fit for purpose? If male soldiers were forced to wear fatigues that did not fit and interfered with their physical movement, would those uniforms be swapped out pronto? You bet they would.

How much meaning does the Army’s public commitment to increase the number of women in the force hold, when stacked against the evidence? If more women are being recruited, then they certainly are not being retained; the percentage of women in the Army has been stagnant at 13 per cent for many years.

Recruiting videos and the Army’s website have stubbornly, perplexingly resisted evolution for the past 30 years, Nelson’s research found. In the 1990s and 2000s, eight recruiting videos showed 187 men and 17 women doing the things that service people do. Number of women shown firing a weapon? Zero. Number of women shown with faces camouflaged? Zero. Number of women shown practising a trade? Zero.

“When women were depicted, they were typically sitting at a computer, talking on a radio or providing medical attention” the report found.

Fast-forward three decades and you’d expect that to have changed radically. But the report found had you clicked on the “careers” tab, or watched a recruiting video in 2018/2019, you would likely still have seen few women and none in combat roles. The total women shown in camouflage uniform – an image we civilians would most closely identify with army personnel – was under 3 per cent. Of the 53 roles available to browse on the Army website, there were no women depicted in direct combat roles, only combat support roles.

The Chief of Air Force, Air Vice Marshall Andrew Clark, addressed Operation Respect’s failings after a scathing report in 2020.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

The Chief of Air Force, Air Vice Marshall Andrew Clark, addressed Operation Respect’s failings after a scathing report in 2020.

Layered on top of all that is more embarrassing evidence that sexual assault of women is a depressingly normalised behaviour in our defence force. This is not news, but seems to surprise and “disappoint” the leaders of the New Zealand armed forces, every time it’s re-proven.

Five years ago, with the launch of Operation Respect, we were made a rose-tinted promise of an “end state” where harmful sexual attitudes would be banished from the forces. Tim Keating boasted about it when he stood down as Defence Force Chief in 2018. But an independent review conducted a year later, showed Keating had been wrong; Operation Respect had in fact failed to bring the change it promised. The reasons it failed ranged from the banal (there was no proper data collection set up for the project) to the very serious (some men in senior positions in the defence force “didn’t see the problem”).

Most seriously, harassment and sexual violence was not being reported because the victims feared retaliation “and do not trust the NZDF processes and systems”.

At the time, Defence promised to redouble its efforts, driving the message down to lower-ranked leaders at camp level, sorting out the data collection issue, making the system more transparent. There has been some progression on one of the big ticket items; Wellington barrister Wendy Aldred confirmed she’s been contracted to conduct a review of the Defence Force complaints system, which could lead to the establishment of a defence ombudsman much like the Australians have.

But zooming out a bit, there are worrying signs for the Operation Respect reboot. The programme’s concept was based on the Canadian military’s Operation Honour, established six years ago to tackle the same issues. Last month Operation Honour was acknowledged as a failure and scrapped altogether, after two of the force’s most senior officers – including the man who created the project – were themselves accused of sexual misconduct.

As two separate Canadian parliamentary committees considered Operation Honour’s failures, one of Canada’s most-decorated women resigned, saying she was “disgusted” by what she had witnessed and could no longer serve. Another service woman told parliament the Operation had “aged like rotten milk”.

That will be more bleak news for New Zealand’s military leaders, who perhaps should begin examining the clues that lie in the little things. Maybe, if women were respected enough in the NZ Army to warrant properly-fitting uniforms, starring roles in combat fatigues in the glossy recruiting material, and proper support when pregnant or returning from parental leave, they might be respected enough to be left alone to do their vital jobs, without being sexually preyed upon by their male counterparts.

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