Over these past weeks, Australia and Mexico have announced opening greater roles for women in their armed forces. Why had this breakthrough not been considered earlier? And why had many countries not seen it as a possibility? The simple answer lies in the stereotype of gender roles.
In traditional prehistoric society, men went hunting and women stayed in caves and took care of offspring. As humans evolved and throughout the industrial revolution and era of commerce women have run the household and men have worked in public roles. This common way of doing things, despite how we have changed over time, is still largely in place, especially where changes are not embraced.
The tendency to put people into boxes of expected functions is rarely challenged until one incident disturbs the equilibrium takes place, as happened with the “Kate” Skype scandal that harmed one woman cadet at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA) in April.
For those who have not heard, 18-year-old “Kate” made headlines when she became a victim of sexual harassment at the academy. The event took a turn when she was asked to apologize. She complained but was ignored, and then went public. The scandal opened a Pandora's box of sexual discrimination and sexual violence cases linked to the Australian Defense Force (ADF), coupled with an apparent lack of attention to victims.
After the incident, inquiries were made of how to improve working conditions in the ADF. One of the requests made was to lift a barrier that prevents women from accessing combat positions. For better or worse, this request was granted. This means 7 percent of roles that were considered male-only “elite” positions would be opened up to women personnel, including snipers; commandos and even Commanders-in-Chief.
There are currently 10,000 women working full- and part-time in Australia's armed forces, accounting for around 14 percent of the total ADF personnel. ADF already ensures that 10 percent of troops are women in Australia's fighting force operations abroad.
In another part of the world, women have greater access to the Mexican Armed Forces (FAM) after being granted entry to its military schools in 2006. President Felipe Calderon changed the regulation for women so they could have access to 17 of 39 military career schools. Since then, Mexican mujeres have been able to become pilots, engineers and other top-career officers, allowing them to rise to the rank of general.
The following year, the number of women applicants for its national armed forces increased 61 percent. This goes to show that when stimulus exists, women — just like men — are willing to take the plunge.
The newest policy was made by the Mexican Congress in October 2011 to “unlock” opportunities for women military personnel. The 10,565 women in the FAM (around 5 percent of total defense personnel) can now compete for positions in its higher command, including the head of its army and even as defense minister.
The release of the national defense and gender equality bill, which had been pending for six years, allows military personnel to be judged equally by merit rather than gender. This policy is one of Mexico's approaches to help the country fight drug traffickers, which have caused more than 40,000 drug-war deaths since 2006.
With only around 5 percent of the world's countries allowing women to play combat roles, gender equality still has a long way to go. Countries where women have greater bargaining positions in society — marked by their Gender Development Index — have made a head start in opening up equal opportunities within their militaries. These include Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and Sweden had implemented such policies as early as the 1980s. Australia and Mexico followed suit almost two decades later.
The change hopefully will contribute to further shift in women's roles in the global armed forces, in which they have traditionally served as nurses, administrative clerks and logistic support roles.
Is the changing of gender policy an isolated event or part of a global movement toward the emancipation of women in military? It may be too early to answer this question, but a wind of change is emerging. The unlikeliest turnaround on the role of woman combatants came from Afghanistan.
This deeply Islamic country in early July announced that four Afghanistan women would commence hands-on military helicopter pilot training in 2012. This is a dramatic gender breakthrough for the Afghan air force, since the women are aiming to become “self-operational” by 2016.
Meanwhile, Indonesian Women Armed Forces Corps (Wanita Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Wan TNI) are expected “not to forget their female nature” as stated by TNI chief Agus Suhartono during the Kartini Day 2011 celebrations. Wan TNI members are assigned to administrative roles, teaching foreign languages and working on improving health and social conditions of armed forces members. While female TNI members are not allowed to join the combat services, such as the infantry, they can become technicians and pilots.
However, in Indonesia there are certain limitations for women in terms of gaining an education, for example to enroll at the Military Academy in Magelang. This is unfortunate, because if they were given the opportunity, women, representing 10 percent of Indonesian Armed Forces (there are around 7,000 Wan TNI members), could improve this country's defense capabilities and its roles in international security, for example by taking part in UN Peacekeeping Missions.
Since the military is generally stereotyped as a man's world, inaccessible positions have “boys' club exclusivity”. This situation indirectly diminishes the courage of female soldiers in efforts to prove themselves capable and worthy of position by automatically ignoring their applications. Including women in the creation of security and peace is a way forward. This would serve both to improve society and provide greater protection to the majority of victims of violence: the women themselves.