26 Aug 2020

Defence Force accused of neglecting sexual violence programme

7:26 am on 26 August 2020

Advocates for victims are accusing the Defence Force of a lack of commitment after it left a crucial sexual violence programme leaderless for years.

New Zealand Army soldiers inside an Australian Army vehicle during the mission rehearsal exercise for Task Group Taji 3 at RAAF Edinburgh, with about 300 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for deployment to Iraq in exercise at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide, South Australia.

File photo. Photo: NZDF / Supplied

Operation Respect was launched in 2016 with the aim of tackling sexual violence, harassment and bullying behaviours within the armed forces.

A scathing independent report released last month found a lack of transparency and accountability and a "code of silence" culture still existed within the military.

A revolving door of staff have been working on Operation Respect since its inception, including command officers, social workers, chaplains, the Sexual Assault Response Team and medical officers.

But now an Official Information Act request released to RNZ showed a programme manager was only employed to lead the initiative in October last year.

It went on to say in many cases, involvement in the programme had been on top of other duties and the "military lead" recommended in the recent report, still hadn't been appointed.

Victim advocate Ruth Money said the Defence Force had failed victims with its glacial pace of developing and resourcing Operation Respect.

"My reading of it is that there are multiple missed opportunities from not acting quickly enough and acting with enough resource to get it off the ground," she said.

She said a manager should have been employed from the start.

"There should be somewhere safe for people at all levels within this organisation to go to disclose - there's not at the moment - there is a lack of resource I think and there's a lack of authenticity around actually being trauma-informed and victim-led," she said.

Aaron Wood is a trustee with the No Duff military helpline - which supports past and present personnel who have suffered abuse.

He was in the Army from 1990 to 2014.

He said the military was a different place to work from those early days - when you'd probably find adult magazines in the room where you got a hair cut.

Wood said the military had acted in an outdated way.

"It's almost self-feeding - it's very closeted - and unfortunately it can take a while for people to realise that the outside world has moved on - the outside society now doesn't accept certain attitudes that were acceptable once upon a time," he said.

Chair of the Operation Respect Steering Group, Air Vice Marshal Andrew Clark, said a small team created the programme in 2016 - and said they achieved a lot by getting it off the ground.

He said it became clear last year a manager was needed - a position he admitted should have been created and filled much earlier.

"What we should have been doing is trying to wrap the support around it that reflected a sustainable building strategy - because we are going to have to sustain this for at least 10 years because it is a cultural change programme - and we should have done that earlier."

"That should have included a dedicated programme manager," he said.

When asked how Operation Respect will be linked deeper into the day-to-day operations of the military, the OIA said four years on, it was still in the process of developing a comprehensive work plan to respond to recommendations in the independent report.

All up 44 recommendations were made, including auditing the programme every two years.

No one lost their job as a result of the independent report.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs