María Isabel Pansa: The Argentine Army’s First Female General

María Isabel Pansa: The Argentine Army’s First Female General

By Dialogo
November 23, 2015

In October, Argentina's Senate approved the nomination of the country's first female general officer: Army Colonel María Isabel Pansa, who is one of three aides-de-camp of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

“This appointment shows that there is no limitation of any sort on women in the Armed Forces Professional Corps becoming general officers,” said Major Luz Perdomo, Chief of the Legal Advisors Department, Office of the Secretary General of the Army.

Pres. Fernández de Kirchner proposed the promotion of Gen. Pansa, 54, after enacting Decree 1521/2015, which eliminated restrictions on women obtaining the Armed Forces' highest ranks. Until now, regulations limited how high service members in the Professional Corps could be promoted, as only officers in the Command Corps could achieve the highest ranks. This restriction affected all female personnel, who could only pursue Military careers within the Professional Corps.

“Women in the Armed Forces are thrilled because they know now if they make the effort, they can climb to the highest levels of each branch of the Military,” added Cecilia Mazzotta, Director of Gender Policy for the Argentine Ministry of Defense. “And one of the challenges is how these women will begin to perform as leaders in a distinct fashion, all their own, without needing to be like men; that is, while maintaining their identities and distinctive features.”

Gen. Pansa holds a bachelor’s degree in Systems Analysis from the University of Belgrano, and three years ago, she earned a degree in psychology from the Merchant Marine University.

“This is an extremely important measure because it closes the gap in equality between men and women within the Military,” Maj. Perdomo said.

Equal rights and equal opportunity

Gen. Pansa's promotion is the most recent in a series of gender equality measures adopted by the Armed Forces. In July 2009, Pres. Fernández de Kirchner awarded a posthumous promotion to General for Juana Azurduy, who fought in the War of Argentine Independence during the 19th century.

“We have had women in the Military since the 1980s, but many of them worked in services like nursing, administration, and food preparation, in addition to a large number of female NCOs,” Mazzotta said. “Some women had begun military careers, but there were no policies to ensure their rights and opportunities for professional development were equal to those available to men.”

That began changing after a pilot program was conducted by the Air Force in 2007 that led the Ministry of Defense to create Gender Affairs Offices to provide answers and counseling to women in the Military. The offices, which assist officers in implementing gender policies, include Military personnel and a team of civilian attorneys and psychologists who can refer service members to the appropriate areas.

“We have also exempted pregnant women from standing watch or carrying weapons.”

Since then, Argentina's military has seen a growing presence of women: they comprise between 12-15 percent of the Army, 15.6 percent of the Navy and nearly 22 percent of the Air Force. That's up from 2008, when women made up between 9-10 percent of the Argentine Armed Forces.

Progress for female Soldiers

Progress for women in the Argentine Armed Forces has been steady and dramatic. By 2011, the Army’s Infantry and Cavalry arms – considered the toughest – were the only Military units closed to women, but now all restrictions have been lifted.

“There are 10 women in the Infantry and Cavalry," Mazzotta said. "The first women will graduate in 2016."

In the other Military branches, women have filled very important roles. In 2012, for example, a group of about 10 women performed maintenance tasks at Argentine bases in Antarctica. In 2013, Captain María Inés Uriarte became the first female naval attaché appointed to Spain. Also in that year, Air Force Colonel Elizabeth Sotelo was invited by the Bolivian Air Force to share Argentina’s experience and help open a Gender Affairs Office in that Andean country.

Argentina also boasts female helicopter pilots and submariners, while other women have performed important functions with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), including serving as personnel chief.

“Women made up 6 percent of the Argentine contribution to the peacekeeping force in Haiti, when in general, the average percentage of women in United Nations missions is less than 3 percent.”

The Military provides support to women in the Armed Forces

The Armed Forces support the inclusion of women in numerous ways, Mazzotta explained.

“Many times, for example, the Gender Affairs offices respond to cases where rights have been violated, either an instance of discrimination or workplace harassment by a superior or a colleague...There are also cases of women whose husbands are in the Military and the women are suffering from domestic violence. Just at this office, we have recorded almost 1,000 reports of gender violence in the last two years.”

In October, Defense Minister Agustín Rossi opened Gender Affairs Office No. 22 at the Sergeant Cabral Army Non-Commissioned Officers’ School in the province of Buenos Aires, where 2,000 candidates from across the country live and work. Additionally, the offices created 20 daycare centers where female Military members can leave their children between the ages of 45 days to 2 years while they're at work. Military members are allocated 65 percent of enrollment slots, with the rest reserved for the community, which includes government employees.