Fight like a girl: supporting female veterans

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Recent research revealed that female veterans feel there is less support for them than their male peers when leaving the Armed Forces. We take a deeper look at the issue, to find out what more can be done to prepare women for life after the Military.

Earlier this year, research from SSAFA, The Armed Forces Charity highlighted that almost half (46 per cent) of female veterans felt their male comrades were better supported when transitioning.

Nearly as many (43 per cent) reported feeling alone, with no one to look out for them after leaving the Armed Forces.

Parliament statistics show that there are around 15,270 women in the UK Armed Forces, making up 10 per cent of the Forces population. With the possibility of up to half of them leaving the Military feeling unsupported, this could have disastrous consequences on their physical and mental wellbeing.

DISCHARGED

Rachel Williamson joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 2007, after leaving college as a physical training instructor (PTI). Retraining as a medic, Rachel served for over 10 years before an injury forced her to be medically discharged from the RAF.

“Being discharged was my biggest challenge as it was a decision that was out of my control and I never expected it,” explains Rachel. “I refused to believe I was a serving member one day then a veteran the next. I was so used to having that routine of wearing a uniform every day, my military ID that never left my purse, and the banter that no one outside the Armed Forces will quite understand.”

Leaving the Military can be a daunting time in any veteran’s life. Yet, many female veterans are entering civvy street alone, because they don’t feel the support available is suitable to their needs, or think it won’t make a difference.

Luckily, Rachel found support with SSAFA, as part of their mentorship scheme. Working with a mentor, she was able to receive help applying for jobs, preparing for interviews and getting general life advice.

With her mentor’s support, Rachel even landed a place at the Invictus Games.

According to SSAFA, increasing numbers of female veterans are coming forward to apply for the mentorship scheme. However, whether this is as a result of more women joining the Army, or more women feeling the support is beneficial to them, it is currently unknown.

“It’s all about providing a wide range of support to everyone from all backgrounds,” says Rachel. “When searching online specifically for female veteran support, not much comes up as, for many charities, the aim is to attract all veterans. But, with 46 per cent of female veterans feeling there is less support available, why not at least trial gender-specific services?”

SUPPORT

Rachel was one of the lucky women who had a great welfare team, who looked after her as soon as she was given the news of her medical discharge. During her transition back to civvy street, Rachel was offered resettlement courses, welfare breaks, distance learning courses and was given advice from her personnel recovery unit (PRU).

The fact that so many women do not feel they have access to the same support is worrying, and something that must change if the Armed Forces want to keep up the  momentum of women joining the ranks. Everyone’s experience of serving in the Military is different, which is why a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to providing support doesn’t work.

Salute Her is a project run by military charity, Forward Assist. The programme provides gender-specific support to females returning to civvy street and aims to uncover the social disadvantages women face during their transition from service back to civilian life.

“I had noticed that many women were coming back from combat zones with diagnosed PTSD and all support services were male orientated,” explains Forward Assist founder, Tony Wright. “I decided to create a gender-specific service for female veterans to address that need.”

Salute Her believes that female veterans are a hidden population in the UK, and so they work closely with them to investigate the types of services they believe women need.

“We don’t guess or presume what support they require,” adds Tony. “This means we are able to provide a needs-led service that is fit for demand.”

DEBATE

Many may say that gender-specific support for female veterans is not necessary, and they should access the general support available. With such a large number of women feeling abandoned, thinking there is a lack of help for them, the current services are failing to provide many women with the support they need and deserve.

In October, the UK Military lifted the ban on women working in close combat roles, with female recruits beginning training with the Royal Marines and the infantry next year.

While it is heartening to see opportunities for women broaden, in a step closer to equality, it is just as worrying to think that these women are being enticed into challenging roles, and could leave the Forces to find little, if any, support, upon the completion of their service.

Regardless if improvements require the introduction of gender-specific services, or current government schemes and charities developing more inclusive services, we urge support providers to assess the way they give guidance to their female veterans, to ensure they’re doing enough to support their transition.

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