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US women fight gender restrictions to serve on the frontline

/ Jan 24, 2013 9:46AM / Print / ()

Soldiers of the U.S. Army V Corps in May 10, 2012 at the U.S. Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

The US will join the likes of New Zealand, Canada, Israel and soon Australia by removing a military ban on women serving in combat, and opening up opportunities for women to serve in elite commando jobs.

In a significant cultural shift that removes one of the last workplace gender restrictions, outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta will overturn a 1994 ban that restricts women from serving in frontline combat military roles.

He will give military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women. Currently, women account for 14% of the 1.4 million active US military personnel.

While women have official been banned from serving in direct combat positions, some ground reports from warzones indicate women are already engaging in combat-like activities, meaning the restrictions are simply stopping them from getting the necessary training needed to fulfill such duties, and potentially placing them in more danger.

As US Department of Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told ABC in April 2011: "The nature of today's conflicts is evolving; there are no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn't mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger."

The restrictions also make it impossible for women to receive recognition and advance to top level positions. Retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles told ABC: "Women serving in combat environments are being shot at, killed and maimed. But they're not getting the credit for being in combat arms."

Those who object to women serving in elite military roles have predominantly argued that women are physically inferior to men.

According to Foreign Affairs this argument is misleading, as the military's physical standards were created to measure male fitness, not job effectiveness. Other militaries that don't place restrictions on women fighting on the frontline have found that with "proper training and necessary adaptations" women are able to complete the same physical tasks as men.

Australia will also join the list of countries with no restrictions on women serving in combat roles.

In 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that a ban on women serving in combat would be removed following a series of military scandals.

By 2016, all barriers on women serving on the frontline will have been lifted. Women will be eligible to join ranks in roles previously reserved for men including special forces, infantry, artillery and naval clearance diving.

Currently, women are able to serve in 93% of employment categories in the ADF, including the army, navy and air force.

At the time of the announcement, Smith said Australian soldiers would be judged on their "physical and psychological capacity to do the work, not on their gender".

The Australia Defence Association previously warned that the change could inflict heavy casualties on Australia's female soldiers. ADA executive director Neil James argued at the time that there are "biomechanic differences" between the sexes that makes even the most physically strong woman more vulnerable in combat.

He said that women do not have the same strength as men and would be at risk of dying to satisfy the "whims of feminists" if they faced the enemy. "The nature of war doesn't change just because some feminists kick up a fuss," he said

Plenty of women disagree. Canadian Army Colonel Jennie Carignan told ABC that women can make a valuable contribution on the frontline, saying physical strength is not the only quality that makes a soldier.

"On the battlefield, when you are out getting shot at, the person who ends up saving the day is not necessarily the guy who looks best in the weights room," she said.

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