A decade after opening the military to women, Bundeswehr officials face reports of sexual harassment aboard a German navy ship, and study the U.S. model for integration.
Ten years ago, the Bundeswehr was destined to become much more feminine. On January 2, 2001, with fewer than 250 female soldiers then enlisted in the German military, the phrase "women must not be obligated to bear arms under any circumstances' was removed from the German constitution. Suddenly, women could choose from a whole new range of career opportunities in the armed forces.
Over the past decade, the numbers of female recruits has grown exponentially, with some 17,300 women currently serving in the German military, accounting for 9% percent of the Bundeswehr. With Germany wholly dependent on a volunteer military, officials are counting on that number reaching 15% in the coming years.
However, the new presence of women in the military is fraught with its own problems. Just in recent days, a controversy surrounding the death of two women aboard the Gorch Fock training ship has raised the troubling topic of sexual harassment in the military. Though there have been no prosecutions in the case, there are reports that the two women, one who fell from the mast and the other who drowned, were bullied and sexually harassed. Critics have called the Gorch Fock: "Germany's biggest floating brothel."
But Diana Behrens, the ship's Equal Rights Officer, has denied that there was any sexual misconduct on board the ship. "I know of no complaints," she says. Behrens is one of 34 equality officers nationwide, a job that has existed since 2005 in the Bundeswehr. Any reports, she says, have just been rumors among young recruits.
Still, adapting the military to the arrival of large numbers of women soldiers is an ongoing challenge. In a 2008 survey of male and female soldiers, the Bundeswehr's Institute of Social Sciences concluded that "the integration of women in the armed forces is not a completed project."
In the U.S. Army, women are fully integrated
There are of course foreign models for how military life and culture can be adapted to the widespread presence of women. The United States military is a prime example. For American women, it was a long and difficult road to armed service, but since the passing of the Equality Act in 1948, women have carved out 15% of the military job market for themselves. In 1948, the U.S. Navy accepted its first eight female officers; in the summer of 2010, there were 53,374 active women in the Navy and 10,587 in the reserves. Women have been allowed to participate in combat since 1994. And in 2010, all four of the Navy's Sailor of the Year honors were awarded to women.
Last year, a final taboo was broken. In the summer of 2010, the first 19 women were taken aboard the Navy's submarine training center. A government commission led by ex-officers recommended overturning an existing ban on women in forward combat zones, acknowledging that the policy did not reflect the realities of asymmetric warfare or do justice to the abilities of female soldiers. The commission also cited a much lower suicide rate among women in the Army.
Sexual assault is still the biggest problem in the United States
While women have made great advancements in the U.S. military, many men are unable to handle the presence of female colleagues. In 2008, the Pentagon reported that nearly 3,000 active duty female soldiers were sexually assaulted, with alleged under-reporting of up to 90 percent. For female soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of such attacks increased by 25 percent from 2007 to 2008. Many women in uniform are hesitant to speak up, fearing embarrassment or harassment.
Only eight percent of rape allegations in the military result in a conviction. Congresswoman Jane Harman of California summarized the situation with this telling fact: "A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."
Israel is the only western state to require a mandatory women's military service. Soldiers serve for 21 months, and women have a better chance than ever of finding a good job in the Israeli military. Women have been serving as instructors for the Army for quite some time now, although they are still spared from many combat situations. In the Israeli Navy, they are responsible primarily for radar communications and coastal monitoring. More and more women are also serving on Israeli combat boats. But no complaints have been heard as of yet from within the country's small fleet of ships.
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