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Report finds barriers to support for female veterans

Published: 20 October 2023 at 11:30

Female Scottish soldier on parade

Research recommends better recognition and representation for women who served

A new research report commissioned by the government’s Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA) has found that female veterans feel unrecognised and underrepresented by the military, civilian and veteran support services and broader society, impacting how they access these services in civilian life.

The report, published by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and funded by the OVA, has made 30 key recommendations calling for better recognition and representation of female veterans at all levels including underlying policy, service organisation and structure, and design and delivery, to better support the wellbeing of female veterans.

The researchers conducted interviews with 85 women who had served in the UK Armed Forces. Some women reported physical health issues such as chronic pain, musculoskeletal problems and hearing loss sustained during training and deployments, impacting their ability to work and stay physically active. Some of the physical issues resulted from wearing ill-fitting uniforms and using equipment designed for men.

In addition, the research suggests that female veterans experienced a number of challenges in civilian life, many related to gendered experiences during their military service, such as gender-based discrimination within policy and practice (including the historic ban on serving when gay) sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and these increased their need for support from statutory and charitable services. Participants felt that this was exacerbated by a hyper-masculine environment.

Research found that many of the women were unaware of veteran services, and male-dominated branding, imagery and organisational structures acted as a barrier to engagement and, in some cases, a trigger for negative feelings and memories. A lack of understanding amongst professionals and those providing support services of female veteran needs was an additional barrier to access,

Many participants did not identify with the term ‘veteran’ which meant not recognising available services as applicable to them, leaving them without much-needed support.

Lead author of the report, Dr Claire Hooks, Associate Professor Midwifery and Women’s Health at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“Whilst many female veterans reported a positive general experience during service, many also experienced challenges related to gendered discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault during service, which impacted their lives following discharge.

“Our findings emphasise the importance of addressing physical and mental health issues resulting from experiences in service, gendered barriers to accessing veteran support services, challenges in navigating transition and civilian life, and the need for recognition and awareness of female veterans in broader society and support services.”

Dr Lauren Godier-McBard, Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the Centre for Military Women’s Research (CMWR) at ARU, added:

“This report calls for improved signposting, and increased representation and awareness among service providers to enhance the well-being of female veterans.”

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Rt Hon Johnny Mercer MP, said:

“Women veterans make up 13% of the veteran population in England and Wales and so it’s important that we better understand their health and welfare needs in order to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran.

“The upcoming Women Veterans’ Strategy will make sure that women veterans have access to support which addresses their unique needs and experiences.”

The report, Where are all the women: Recognition and representation – UK female veterans’ experiences of support in civilian life was one of three independent reports commissioned by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs investigating how the government and charities can improve access to care for female veterans..

It was also was among several pieces of new research presented by the VFI during this week’s Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum 2023 in Ottawa, the premier international conference in the field of military and veterans health.