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Women soldiers battle for equality

Women gain ground in the Swiss army swissinfo.ch

Women are playing an increasingly important role in Switzerland’s armed forces since reforms in 2004 gave male and female soldiers equal rights.

This content was published on March 8, 2005 - 09:43

In the past seven years, the number of female applicants for military service has doubled, bringing the total to 1,400 in active service.

Women have to undergo the same physical and psychological tests as men before admission to recruitment school, where both sexes undertake 18 weeks of basic training.

As with male conscripts, they are also expected to take part in three-week refresher courses every year, up until the age of 30.

Employers are required to pay normal wages to women during their absence from civilian jobs. The same applies to male soldiers.

Employers can reclaim 80 per cent of employees’ pay from the state.

Thirty-two years ago, when Brigadier-General Doris Portmann joined the army, women were restricted to the auxiliary services.

Portmann, who is now the chief of the women in the armed forces, says they were not allowed to carry weapons, and officer training school was shorter for women than for men.

Combat units

These days, women can join any unit, provided they pass the entry tests, but so far very few have succeeded in qualifying for combat units.

"The rules of natural selection apply here," the Brigadier-General told swissinfo. "Women are often not strong or fast enough."

At the La Poya barracks in Fribourg, a group of three young women are coming to the end of their initial training as non-commissioned officers.

In sub-zero temperatures, almost knee deep in snow, they practice handling rifles, standing in line with their 40 male colleagues.

The rifles weigh five kilos each, but the women have no obvious trouble loading, cocking, and aiming them.

New recruit, Felicia Omura, is a communications specialist and hopes that the skills she picks up in the army will help with her studies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Strength

She admits that lack of strength is sometimes a problem for female recruits, but otherwise she believes there are no obvious differences between men and women as soldiers.

Omura feels that some of her trainers do not respect women soldiers, but relations with fellow male soldiers are generally good.

Her colleague, Zeynep Kalfa, hopes her army training will stand her in good stead when she applies to join the police in Zurich.

She points out that the women have, at times, been given more privileges than have men. "During part of our basic training in Langnau, the girls were allowed to shower indoors while the boys were sent outside."

The commander of this logistics unit, Lieutenant Colonel Beat Mathys, is happy with their progress. "There are some women who are quicker on the uptake than others, but it’s the same with the men", he said.

"I think all these recruits will go on to become good group leaders."

Peacekeeping

Female soldiers are particularly in demand in Kosovo, where the Swiss are part of the international peacekeeping mission.

There is a general dearth of applicants for service in the province, where thousands of people died in the ethnic conflict of 1999.

Eva Zwahlen is a sergeant major in the public relations department at Swisscoy’s Camp Casablanca in Suva Reka, and says it has been a rewarding experience.

"I feel there is complete equality between the men and women at the camp. We women are respected for our skills, and our presence improves the atmosphere in the camp."

Prejudice

Female soldiers still face prejudice from many of their male counterparts, who cannot understand why women would volunteer for the army.

But Brigadier-General Portmann feels that great progress has been made in achieving equality.

She doubts, however, that conscription for women will ever become a subject for discussion.

"Women are not conscripted because we have enough soldiers for our militia army with 30,000 new male conscripts every year".

The Brigadier-General’s function will end this year, as it is no longer considered necessary for women to have a special representative in the armed forces.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

March 8 was International Women's Day.
The Swiss army has about 300 new applications from women every year.
Only four women have qualified for combat units.
Most women seem to prefer serving in logistics units.
There are 40 professional women soldiers – the top-ranking woman is a colonel.

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In brief

There are 1,400 women in active service in the Swiss army, and 120,000 male soldiers.

Men are conscripted but the women are all volunteers.

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