No room for women in the armed forces

The number of female recruits in the armed forces has remained stable at around 12 percent since the services were opened up to both sexes 25 years ago

Patricia Ortega is the first woman to rise to lieutenant colonel in the Spanish armed forces
Patricia Ortega is the first woman to rise to lieutenant colonel in the Spanish armed forcesR. A. Pérez (EFE)

In November 2009, Patricia Ortega became the first woman to attain the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Spanish armed forces. She attended the Zaragoza military academy 25 years ago, when the armed forces opened their doors for the first time to half of the population. In reality, many limits still remained: women could only join certain units or apply for a limited number of posts. It wasn't until 1999 that all obstacles were finally removed, and they were able to join combat units, for example, and in theory, a woman could become the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Women are now able to pursue the career path they wish within the armed forces; there are no quotas or particularities applied to the sexes. Both have the same tasks, training and education, responsibilities, salaries, and are subject to the same disciplinary procedures," says Ismael Kasrou, the head of the Defense Ministry's Equality Observatory.

That said, some limitations are imposed on women that do not apply to men: a female officer serving in a unit cannot have either an immediate superior or inferior officer of the same sex.

There are now women fighter pilots (1.7 percent of the total), submariners (9.7 percent), and 4.5 percent of those serving in special units are also women. In February 2007, Private Idoia Rodríguez Buján was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan, making her the first female soldier to be killed in a conflict zone. In total, women make up 12.3 percent of the armed forces, but while they represent 16.9 percent of infantry and navy units, far fewer reach senior positions: just 7.3 percent of officers are women, and only 3.2 percent of NCOs. The Defense Ministry says that the percentage of navy commanders or lieutenant captains - currently 6.3 percent - will eventually be the same as for lieutenants and sub-lieutenants (13.7 percent).

Breast cancer not covered

Silvia Ruiz Gómez lost her job in the army on July 2. As a result, she found that she no longer had medical insurance. The reason the 33-year-old had not had her contract renewed by the armed forces - which would have seen her sign up until she was 45 years old - was because she was being treated for breast cancer, which she had been diagnosed with in March 2012, and had already taken 84 days off duty due to the effects of her treatment.

Three days after she lost her job in the army she had her first medical examination to assess the impact of two operations and a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She will have to undergo further treatment in the coming weeks as she undergoes surgery to insert a breast implant.

But her medical costs have until now been covered by a private insurance plan paid for by the armed forces: having lost her job, she now has no medical insurance. She has tried to renew her insurance, but was denied cover on the grounds that she had had cancer.

"I have contacted the Social Security [state healthcare system], which I am entitled to, but this would mean changing doctor and delaying the operation for a year," she says.

But that is unlikely to happen. Around 40 percent of officers in the armed forces are in the reserve, which is to say that they do not serve full time, meaning that they cannot be promoted above the rank of major. Furthermore, only 7.19 percent of the 2,800 members of the Spanish armed forces sent abroad this year on international missions were women. In other words, the female presence in overseas units is half of that in Spain. That said, the incorporation of women into the armed forces has involved making considerable changes, from designing new uniforms to creating segregated areas in barracks and aboard ships, as well as adapting the physical tests as part of the admission process.

Women face greater obstacles in balancing their military career with family and personal life, says Kasrou, despite the battery of measures approved over the last two decades. The most recent was an order from the Defense Ministry that allows personnel to delay joining an international operation when they are awaiting the outcome of a divorce hearing relating to the custody of their children; when their partner is having medical problems with a pregnancy; when a partner has recently died; or when their home has been repossessed.

Labor regulations now allow members of the armed forces responsible for a child aged 12 years or younger (particularly in the case of single parents) can apply for flexible working hours or part-time positions, with the corresponding reduction in pay. In theory, those who do so on the basis of looking after their children are exempt from guard duty or going on maneuvers, but only "when the needs of the service do not prevent this." The officer in charge decides those needs. "What do I do with my child if I am told that I must be on guard duty for 24 hours, or have been told to head off to maneuvers for several days?" asks one female soldier who has already taken a pay cut to look after her child.

Among the more complex aspects of including greater numbers of women in the armed forces is the risk of sexual harassment. Over the course of the last decade, military courts have handed down 25 sentences for abuse of authority or degrading treatment, while the civil courts have dealt with 86 such cases since 2010. But there are no specific figures related to sexual harassment, as the 1985 military penal code does not distinguish the offense from other types of abuse.

"A secretary in a mini-skirt"

Last December, the Supreme Court ratified the 34-month prison sentence imposed on Colonel Isidoro Lezcano-Mújica for abusing his authority against a female captain under his command in the Valencia-based Transmission Regiment. Lezcano-Mújica was found to have ordered the female officer to accompany him to a meeting in Valladolid, "as a secretary, you know, like a secretary in a mini-skirt." Once at the meeting, he then took advantage of the fact that he was sitting next to her to "put his hand on the captain's leg, fondling it, and putting his hand between her legs, at which point she suddenly stood up."

As the meeting was drawing to a close, the colonel "stopped the officer by grabbing her arm and began to fondle her again, telling her that she had to acquiesce to his demands, reminding her that he was responsible for writing her personal report." The following day he told her not to talk to another officer. At which point, she told him "while I am wearing this uniform, I am nothing more than a captain; I am not a woman." To which he replied: "You will regret this."

From that point on the colonel went out of his way to take every opportunity to humiliate the captain in front of other officers.

The military penal code is currently being revised with the intention of specifying sexual harassment as an offense. Kasrou believes that this will shed light on the problem, but says that overall, the Spanish armed forces have not seen the kinds of problems that have been reported in other countries.

More so than in any other institution, the opinion of a superior officer is a key factor in determining the way a junior officer's career goes. The Personal Qualification Report (IPEC), which evaluates the performance of a member of the armed forces, is decisive in establishing promotion, or to which unit a soldier is to be assigned. The threat of a poor report can be used to threaten or even blackmail a junior officer. To avoid this, the Defense Ministry has now ruled that IPECs must be prepared by more than one person, and that there must also be women on the evaluation boards for promotion or assignments.

In the first years after they were allowed to join the armed forces, there was a spectacular increase in the numbers of women who signed up. This was in part because of a shortfall in volunteers following the end of compulsory military service, a process that took place over a number of years in the early 1990s. All three branches of the armed forces made a special effort to make up numbers by recruiting women.

But over the last five years, the crisis has actually coincided with a decline in the numbers of women looking to join the armed forces, meaning that the percentage of female members has remained at around 12 percent. In 2008, women represented 11.5 percent of recruits; that figure fell to 4.8 percent in 2011. The figures are even worse for officers; last year, only 17 women (4.7 percent) were given postings as officers, and for the first time ever, there were no NCO postings for women.

Before the end of this decade, Spain will have its first female general, although she will be very much the exception unless measures are taken to avoid women continuing to be relegated to lower positions.

Kasrou says that the Equality Observatory receives around 700 requests for information each year, but does not deal with complaints. These must be dealt with by military courts or the commanding officer in question. The former are overwhelmingly staffed by men, and senior positions on military bases are also largely taken by male officers.

Two arrests after abortion

Private M. T., the mother of a 12-year-old girl, based in the Spanish exclave of Melilla, was punished by Colonel D. V. to 30 days' confinement for leaving her base for a period of less than 24 hours. A week earlier she had visited a hospital where she had found out that she was pregnant.

The reason for her absence was that she had traveled to Málaga to have an abortion. She says that she telephoned her unit on several occasions to warn that she would not be back on time, but that nobody answered her calls. When she returned, her commanding officer questioned her in the presence of other soldiers, who then found out about her pregnancy. The soldier was again punished, this time by another officer, and confined to barracks for two weeks, after she reported for duty half an hour late. The officer in question refused to allow her to be transferred to hospital when she began bleeding and suffering from abdominal pains as a result of the abortion. She was then off duty for three months, but her commanding officer refused to allow visits, as well as preventing her from leaving the base to buy food or to take her daughter to school. When the case was taken to court, the prosecution asked for the two officers concerned to be given four-month prison sentences. They were both absolved.

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