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‘I hated myself’: Female soldiers speak up about abuse in the Defence Forces

Women of Honour, a documentary special on RTÉ Radio, detailed the problems faced by women in Ireland’s defence forces.

Image: Gareth Chaney/RollingNews.ie

FORMER FEMALE MEMBERS of the Irish Defence Forces have spoken up about their experiences of abuse and harassment while at work, and have called for acknowledgement, redress and reform from Óglaigh na hÉireann.

“Women of Honour”, a documentary special on RTÉ Radio One, painted a grim picture of life as a female member of the forces, detailing the shortcomings of reporting processes in the forces and the devastating personal and professional implications of abuse and attempts to report it.

Some victims suffered depression, eating disorders and suicide ideations as a result of their experiences. Some left their jobs in the forces.

Former Captain Yvonne O’Rourke told presenter Katie Hannon of an incident in her 20s where she was assaulted by a senior officer in a nightclub.

“A man came up right behind me. He had a hand to the left and to the right of me … I felt like I was pinned to the bar”, O’Rourke, who is now 47, said.

She said she was “not a big drinker” at the time, but the officer told her to “drink the beer, get that beer, drink that now”.

The alcohol quickly took effect and O’Rourke felt unwell. The officer insisted on bringing her home.

She did not remember the rest of the night, but woke up the next day in pain and “feeling humiliated, violated”.

“He should not have been anywhere near me – he was an officer, he was a senior officer, and in my mind he completely abused his rank. He abused his authority. He abused absolutely everything, and he abused me.”

She said she developed bulimia as a result and tried to take her own life.

“I hated myself. I hated everything I had stood for,” she said. “I had internalised everything.”

Karina Molloy, one of the first 40 female recruits to join the Defence Forces in 1981, said she tried to report an assault on the day it happened, but left the meeting with the impression that her then-boyfriend’s career would suffer if she made a formal complaint.

Molloy said she was prompted to speak up after hearing about similar problems in the Canadian army. The #MilitaryMeToo movement has highlighted bullying, misogyny and sexual violence within armies, navies and air forces around the globe.

The report included anecdotes such as a senior officer telling new recruits that they were not permitted to wear “silky” underwear or use tampons.

Another instructor would tell recruits they were “bait” in a “man’s world”.

The report detailed the lack of support for female soldiers and naval officers with children. Former Air Corps Captain O’Rourke spoke of how she received poor performance reviews for the first time for the years 2010 and 2011 – despite being on maternity leave for most of the two years.

O’Rourke was told she could not go on a training course which would enable her to advance to the rank of commander as a result of the reviews.

“Catherine” had her first child in 2016, shortly after the introduction of a new policy which allowed mothers in the forces to be based onshore until their child turned two. The rule was “not universally welcomed”, Hannon’s report said.

Catherine, who did not use her real name, said she was told the rule meant: “Sure you’ll keep having babies now so you won’t have to go to sea.”

Catherine applied for a new post which would see her permanently stationed onshore, but she was “wronged” in the handling of the process, according to a subsequent investigation.

Catherine refused to resit the interview for the promotion and just days after her child turned two, she was ordered to take a new post overseas.

She quit the naval service shortly after. “They need to find land-based jobs or they’re going to lose every mother,” she said.

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In a statement, the Defence Forces said it is in the process of implementing recommendations on anti-discrimination law. It envisions that this process will be complete before the end of the year.

“Ciara” was harassed on a ship by a leading hand – the equivalent of an army corporal.

One evening, two officers, one of whom was only wearing a towel, came into Ciara’s cabin, closed the door and started looking through her belongings. The clothed officer took her hand and tried to get her to touch the other officer. Ciara did not report the incident for fear of getting in trouble.

She later learned from a friend that the two officers had been separated and fined, but she was not told this formally herself.

Hannon said she spoke to three more former officers who said they were raped in their beds while working in the force.

Responding to a series of questions from RTÉ, the Defence Forces said: “It is inappropriate for Óglaigh na hÉireann to comment on individual cases or allegations of a criminal or disciplinary nature or any measures that would fall within the purview of the protected Disclosure Act 2014.”

The Department of Defence said in a statement that there are robust policies, practices and procedures in place within the Defence Forces for addressing allegations of this nature, and their allegations relating to sexual offences are taken very seriously by Minister Simon Coveney.

The statement acknowledged that the Minister has been in receipt of correspondence outlining a number of allegations and is “currently examining the overall response to that correspondence with a view to conducting an independent assessment of actions taken to date, and whether any other actions should be adopted”.

Earlier this year, multiple former members of the Defence Forces have raised concerns about how allegations of sexual abuse and assault were handled by the organisation.

The Journal spoke to a whistleblower who said he is aware of a number of incidences of “abuse of rank for sexual favours” within the Defence Forces.

Both men and women have told him they were sexually assaulted and harassed by their colleagues in the Defence Forces.

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