By Valerie O’Leary
The recent broadcasting of RTE’s “Women of Honour” programme on sexual harassment, bullying and sexist practices in the Irish Defence Forces is yet another example of the systemic toxic and misogynistic attitudes that exist in the military. Over the past few years, the rise of the global feminist movement, out of which came the #MeToo movement has highlighted countless examples of violence and harassment women face in the workplace.
Toxic hierarchical culture
This most recent example highlights the macho culture that exists in workplaces such as the army, only 7% of whom are women. Under capitalism, the military is consciously organised in a very hierarchical way, with elitist command structures and based on training people to commit extremely violent acts on others on command. This creates and reinforces this culture of power imbalance.
The programme exposed how former members of the Defence Forces were subject to bullying, harassment, sexual assault and rape by their male colleagues, as well as discrimination and intimidation by their superiors, especially when these incidents were reported. It is telling that out of 45 complaints of bullying and harassment between 2004 and 2013, only five were upheld and 22 were withdrawn (IMG reports 2008 & 2014), especially since we know only a small proportion of these are reported in the first instance due to the barriers victims face.
The harrowing interviews also described the negative impact on women soldiers’ mental health and wellbeing, as well as the detrimental consequences on their work and careers. These experiences are not unique to Ireland, women in the military in the UK, Canada and elsewhere have also come forward with similar complaints. A 2019 UK report showed that in the 12 months that preceded the survey, 73% of women in the army reported inappropriate sexualised comments, 20% had experienced inappropriate touching, 8% reported having been sexually assaulted and 3% reported being raped. This shows the huge normalisation of sexist attitudes and behaviours that exist within the state’s armed forces.
While some policy changes have been made over the past 20 years in a bid to increase the proportion of women in the Defence Forces, the recent allegations by former members of the force show that such changes do not deal with the underlying structural issues outlined above. The Defence Forces is the only public institution that has been excluded from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act of 2014; it is therefore exempt from promoting equality within its ranks, leading to gender discrimination.
Right to organise denied
In addition, the government has been blocking the right of Defence Forces personnel to join a union or to have their representative group, PDForra, from affiliating with ICTU for decades. This means that the army workforce is not only excluded from national pay talks, but also that it is isolated from the wider struggle of women and LGBTQI+ workers in other sectors in their fight against discrimination and gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. Rank and file members of the army should have the right to join a trade union and the right to strike to defend the rights and conditions of all their members.
While trade union affiliation or human rights law in and of themselves have limitations, both could be used as tools to assist rank and file Defence Forces members to organise against harassment and sexism, and to counter the imbalance of power built into the Defence Forces, as well as challenge the culture of abuse within it.
Capitalism — oppressive system
Gender-based violence, exemplified by the brutal murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a police officer in Britain, reflects the treatment of women and LGBTQI+ people in institutions where misogyny and violence is normalised such as the police and the military. This was further confirmed when looking at the total lack of action by Gardaí in responding to calls on domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance. This is a problem that policy changes alone cannot fix.
The widespread nature of gender-based violence and oppression points to the need to look at capitalism, as a system which normalises sexism to justify the oppression of women on which it relies. The international nature of the experience of women in defence forces shows the importance of building solidarity across the globe to put an end to workplace sexism and harassment. We need to build a working-class, socialist feminist movement capable of bringing about a fundamental change in the system and fight for a democratic socialist society free of gender-based oppression.