Military Women Making Great Strides in Latin America

Democratization process, modernization of region’s armed forces credited
Lucy Hood | 25 January 2011

Colombian Air Force Capt. Maria Andrea Bueno, call sign Agatha, has flown combat, intelligence and transport missions, and intends to fly once again when she returns from maternity leave. (Courtesy photo)

Colombian Air Force Capt. Maria Andrea Bueno and Peruvian Air Force Capt. Nadia Maycock have several things in common.

Both are the children of military officers, both are human resources specialists, and both were among the first women admitted into the air force academies of their respective countries.

Bueno was admitted in 1997; Maycock, in 1998.

Both broke new ground in a setting that up until then had been off limits to women.

“It was very difficult,” Maycock said, referring to the air force training. It was not only rigorous, she said, but it took a while for the 36 men in her class to get used to the four women who joined them.

“When I first enrolled…, I wanted to leave, but I endured through the first two years and after that it became much easier,” she said. “I finished very well, very successfully, and I am very pleased with what I’m doing.”

Maycock, who opted for an administrative career, is a human resources specialist for the Peruvian Air Force. She represents the Peruvian armed forces in MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Bueno is a pilot and a human resources specialist for the Colombian Air Force Central Command. She’s pregnant and currently restricted to a desk job, but she’s flown combat, intelligence and transport missions, and intends to fly again when she returns from maternity leave.

Bueno was one of 124 people in her class at the Colombian Air Force academy. There were 90 men and 34 women. Of the 64 who graduated, 16 were women.

“The men didn’t know how to treat us,” she said. “They didn’t know what our capabilities were or if we would be able to do it. We were like pioneers.”

The women demonstrated that they were just as capable as the men, she said, and today “we have the same opportunity as any man” to ascend the ranks. “We have made great strides,” she said.

Several factors have contributed to the success of women in the Latin American armed forced: the democratization of much of Latin America, widespread modernization efforts, and the United Nations’ inclusion of women in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

‘Women of peace’

Lilian Bobea, a sociologist and an expert on security and defense issues in Latin America, calls the women in U.N. peacekeeping missions “women of peace.” The U.N.’s efforts have provided women in Latin America with “a window” of opportunity in the armed forces.

At least 3,332 women served among the 99,245 military and police personnel in U.N. 2010 peacekeeping missions. Women represented 3.3 percent of that total, up from 1.5 percent in 2005; within police forces, they had the strongest showing ─ 8.7 percent.

Women account for roughly 4 to 7 percent of all military in Latin America, said Cecilia Mazzotta of the Buenos Aires-based Security and Defense Network of Latin America, known by its Spanish acronym RESDAL.

Peruvian Air Force Capt. Nadia Maycock currently is representing the Peruvian armed forces in MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti. (Courtesy photo)

That number is low but signifies an improvement over previous years, analysts said. Women have made their greatest advances in the air and naval branches of the armed forces. The armies of most countries have also made progress, analysts said, but not as much as the air and naval branches. Many areas of the armed forces, including combat positions, are still off limits to women.

“There is a difference between the inclusion of women as participants and the inclusion of women as equals,” Mazzotta said. These differences emerge as limitations within the military, cultural differences, or both.

Bueno has the same opportunity as her male counterparts to attain the rank of general, she said, but culturally women who have children are expected to stay close to home. Leaving home for days at a time is still looked down upon, she said. Women who stay close to home can maintain an administrative career, she said, but cannot become generals.

Asked if she would like to become a general, she said, “For now, yes.”

Maycock echoed the Colombian sentiment toward motherhood in Peru. Physical strength is a key asset in combat, she said, and “we don’t pretend to have the same strength as a man or to be able to run as fast.” Plus, she said, it’s not a good idea to put married women with children in that kind of danger.

Both Bueno and Maycock are following in the footsteps of their fathers.

Bueno’s father is a retired colonel from the Colombian Air Force, and Maycock’s is a retired general from the Peruvian Air Force.

“I grew up in a military family,” Maycock said. “I like planes, and I like discipline.”

She’s been in Haiti for nine months (as of late December). “My replacement will be a woman,” she said. “Just a few years ago, women were not considered very often for international assignments. Now, women are taken into account more frequently.”

Maycock is the only woman among the 371 military personnel representing Peru in Haiti. MINUSTAH is comprised of 418 women and 11,405 men from 58 countries.

Of those, Maycock said, 80 are military officers and four of the officers are woman.

Maycock has gone out on patrols in addition to her work in the command center - not to provide security, she said, but to build rapport with Haitian women and children.

“We send women because they have a friendlier approach with other women and the kids,” she said, adding that she enjoys getting out of the command center and into Haitian communities.

“That’s a lot of fun,” she said. At the same, she said, “It’s been a difficult year….Sometimes it’s very hard to be here.”

She was referring to a series of calamities that have struck the Caribbean since the beginning of last year, beginning with an earthquake that killed a quarter million people, followed months later by a cholera outbreak and flooding from Hurricane Tomas, as well as general instability in the streets and a contentious presidential election process.

“In my day to day work,” she said, “I’ve come to appreciate how the international community works, how people do things from Nepal, Brazil, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world…..I’ve learned a great deal.”

Maycock, who is engaged, said she plans to get married when she returns to Peru in March. She also plans to rise through the ranks, become a major, then a colonel, and raise her children.

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