Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Securing South Africa's Future: Putting Women in the Frontline

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Securing South Africa's Future: Putting Women in the Frontline

Article excerpt

Centre for Military Studies University of Stellenbosch (*)


This article addresses the challenges facing the South African armed forces, which has been politically and legally compelled to implement full gender equality. To place the debate within context the various feminist positions are outlined, followed by a discussion of the factors influencing women's participation in the military with reference to cross-national gender studies. The arguments for and against the utilisation of women in frontline combat positions are debated in light of international findings, and comparisons are drawn with South Africa. Here recent empirical findings are used to demonstrate how military, societal and cultural factors including race, class and gender impact on the attitudes of women, and towards women serving in the South African National Defence Force, and the challenges the military faces in implementing gender equality in a racially divided society.


The military is one of the most pro-typically masculine of all social institutions. For most of history the armed forces have been virtually all-male and even today with greater numbers of women in the services, men still dominate and women are still barred from certain frontline combat roles. For centuries, men have been the protectors and defenders -- women the protected. Only under desperate situations, when there has been imminent threat of occupation or invasion by outsiders and insufficient men to protect and defend the native land, have women served in combatant roles. Therefore it is understandable that pressure for gender equality in the military evokes a wide range of issues and concerns, specifically when it comes to the assignment of women in combat positions on land, sea and air.

This study focuses on the issues, concerns and challenges pertaining to the utilisation of women in the armed forces both within society and the military Within broader society opinions differ greatly. There are feminists who lobby for the exclusion of women from an institution sanctioning violence, some for the reform of male patriarchy and others for equal opportunities for women in the armed forces. In many countries these feminists represent a pressure group that force the military to assess and review policies and practices towards women. Hence, armed forces should take note of the dominant feminist ideology within society.

The extent of women's participation in the armed forces throughout history and across nations is influenced by a number of factors. Segal suggests that the main factors that affect the utilisation of women, include military variables (such as the national security situation, military technology, combat to support ratio, force structure, and military accession policies); the social structure of society (including demographic patterns, women's positions in the labour force, economic factors and family structure); and various cultural considerations involved in the social construction of gender and family (such as social values about gender and family, public discourse regarding gender and values regarding ascription and equity). (1)

Once women participate in the military, a number of issues arise concerning their utilisation. These include whether women should be permitted the right to serve in direct combat specialities (the equality debate), their physical and psychological suitability for combat, the effect of women on cohesion and morale and their impact on military effectiveness. Uniquely female concerns also impact on their utilisation, such as the effect of pregnancy on deployability, parental and family concerns and the impact of sexual harassment.

Often absent in literature are discussions on the implications of the expanded role of women for human resource management. The final section of this article will address some of the realities and considerations pertaining to the effective utilisation of women in the armed forces, with reference where relevant to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). …

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