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Urgent action needed to end Defence Force Academy sex harassment and abuse

Lee Rhiannon 4 Nov 2011

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

Yesterday an independent review of sexual harassment at the Australian Defence Forces Association (ADFA), by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, called for urgent government action.

This is a most disturbing report, arising from an incident where a female cadet was filmed, without her knowledge, having sex with a colleague. This very private act was simultaneously watched by colleagues over the net.

The evidence provided by staff and students points to an unsafe environment for young women and a culture that not only tolerates, but promotes sexist attitudes.

It revealed a staggering 74 per cent of female cadets and 30 per cent of male cadets had been sexual harassed.

Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick is reported as commenting at the report launch that the culture at ADFA, “.is what some people describe as the warrior culture, the predominant underpinning [is] about strength, fitness, all those things. The research suggests in those circumstances it will be more difficult for women and that is the case.”

Work culture is a difficult thing to change, particularly when it is so entrenched. We know it is possible, but strong words clearly won’t be enough.

The ADFA needs to develop a range of practical measures as well as tackling the entrenched sexist culture that permeates the ADFA.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s recommendations are a good starting point for redressing some of the issues raised in the report.

It’s time to fast-track some of the  practical steps that are recommended – ensuring cadets have access to support services outside of the ADFA, accessible complaint procedures separate from the rigid military “chain of command”, education about interpersonal behaviour and consistency in the treatment of the male and female cadets.

Education can play a key role in cleaning up the destructive behaviour that has permeates the ADFA. Courses could include education about respectful relationships, why sexist language is offensive and why consent should be sought.

The Review suggests that the problems of sexual violence and the mistreatment of women run deeper than many expected.

The report reads, “Our review found widespread, low-level sexual harrassment; inadequate levels of supervision, particularly for first-year cadets; an equity and diversity environment marked by punishment rather than engagement and cumbersome complaints processes.”

The authorities need to be willing to refer sexual assault to the police if they are going to change the culture within the ADFA.

These problems will not be solved overnight. They will need cooperation between government departments and a consistency in approach to clear up the offensive and at times criminal behaviour.

Phase Two of the Review will consider the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force more broadly. 

Stay tuned for updates.


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