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Canadian army looking to recruit women despite their ‘sexualized culture’

Canada’s military is looking to boost the numbers of women in its ranks to 25 per cent and has just launched a 10-year campaign aimed at attracting more female recruits. But plenty of women are reticent to enlist given the military’s long history of sexism

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This year, the military only recruited 735 women, so women now make up 15 per cent of the enrolments. While that number tops the 640 female recruits to the armed forces last year, they hope to significantly increase this number. But it should come as no surprise that women choose to stay away from the military.

Last year, a report from retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that there was an “endemic” problem of sexual misconduct in the military and a lack of functional resources for victims of sexual violence. “Victims, concerned about how they will be treated by the military justice system, tend not to report sexual assaults,” writes Deschamps. “Many of those victims who did report an offence said that their experiences were ‘atrocious.'”

A big part of the problem was the pervasive macho culture which included “frequent use of swear words and highly degrading expressions that reference women’s bodies, sexual jokes, innuendos, discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women, and unwelcome sexual touching,” explains Deschamps.

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Sexist behavior and views appear to be deep-rooted in the military. Who can forget the Canadian Armed Forces officer, Mason Stalker, who was charged this July with multiple counts of sexual assault and exploitation of the cadets he was charged with mentoring? And the military has also had issues with misogyny and sexism amongst higher-ups.

Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, came under fire last June when he expressed a “boys will be boys” attitude about sexual assault in an interview on CBC’s The National saying, “… we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others,” implying that sexual assault was a natural male instinct. Though Lawson quickly apologized for his “awkward” comment, it’ll take more than an apology to overturn an entrenched macho culture.

Getting justice via the military police court has also proved to be challenging for those who have reported sexual assaults in the military. St. John’s woman Lesleyann Ryan reported being sexually assaulted at the end of her Bosnia tour, and after filing a freedom of information request to view her investigation. Ryan says, in an interview with The St. John’s Morning Show, that she was “blown away” by how “incompetent” the proceedings were. “I can see why they never charged him, because what [the military] submitted was not what I said. I wasn’t even given a chance to sign off on [my statement], so they took a verbal complaint, sent it up, didn’t bother to have me check what they had written down,” she recalls. “What came back was not what I said.”

She added that speaking out about the alleged abuse had a detrimental impact on her career, causing her to drop out of law school. “The harassment from peers and supervisors, it eventually got to the point I had to get out,” she says.

In August, the new chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, made efforts to get rid of a culture that disrespects women at its root, banning sexist jokes and sexualized photos of women as part of an anti-harassment campaign. The military also set up an independent centre to support victims, as recommended by Deschamps in her report. Since opening in September, the Department of Defence reported (in February) that the center fielded 100 harassment or sexual assault-related complaints, eight of which they’re currently investigating. Gen. Christine Whitecross, commander of military personnel, says in an interview with CBC News that “the fact that people are calling the centre is a tremendous — great — step forward.”

Maybe so, but let’s not rest on our laurels just yet — the step forward we should aim for would eliminate sexual assault in the military entirely. A 2014 study found that whopping one in 14 women have been sexually assaulted in connection with their work with the military. And Statistics Canada is expected to release a new study soon to assess the current scope of the problem.

While the Canadian Forces have clearly taken steps to address the deep-rooted culture of sexism, 100 complaints of sexual assault and harassment are still 100 far too many. Only time will tell if the changes they’ve made to fight sexism are working for women.

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