For three days, from June 13th-15th, partner nation participants from 19 countries in the Americas gathered in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago to discuss the role of women in the armed forces. The “Women in the Military & Security Conference 2016” (WIMCON), co-hosted by the Trinidad & Tobago Defence Force (TTDF) and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), brought together keen insight from members of the regional military, security, and police forces on the evolutionary inclusion of women into their respective countries’ military forces from the time each country started allowing women into the military to the present. And it is clear that women have come a long way from having joined in supportive roles to administrative and kitchen staff, in some cases, to currently fighting in combat hand-in-hand to their male counterparts and holding high-ranking officer positions.
“We are not here merely for a women’s conference, but to discuss the issues of women in the military, which affect us all, irrespective of our gender,” said Col. (P) Archilus Ln Phillips, Chief of Defence Staff, TTDF, in his welcome remarks to the Caribbean Twin Island Republic. “The initial intent is to provide a forum to engage the different militaries to dialogue with respect to best practices and experiences … but more particularly to work towards the fullest integration possible of women in our Armed, Defense, and Security Forces.”
For his part, U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd, SOUTHCOM Commander, gave an accolade to the role women play, not only at SOUTHCOM, but across all the U.S. Armed Forces. “We recognize and celebrate the essential role that women play as full partners in fostering and maintaining peace and prosperity across our nations.” He also thanked the participants for coming together for such an important initial attempt at ensuring that equality is part of the inclusion and expansion of women in the military. “Fundamentally, we’re here because we believe that our respective nations can only be more secure when we unlock the full potential of our security forces, by promoting gender diversity, integration, and equality,” he said.
The three-day event included different panels in which participants discussed topics including how gender diversity within the defense and security sectors benefits us all; whether wellness resources are reflective and responsive to today’s gender diversity; breaking the brass ceiling in terms of recruitment and training and assignments and mentoring; legal and policy considerations regarding where things are and where they need to go from here; and regional perspectives from North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. For example, the inclusion of women in the Salvadoran Military has only been in development for about 16 years, so it’s fairly new. Currently, 10 percent of El Salvador’s Military are women, but numbers are growing and more opportunities are being opened to them to break the mold for future generations. Others, like the U.S. and Mexican militaries, have included women in their ranks for longer, but they too are still growing and evolving to become more inclusive.
Lieutenant General Christine Whitecross, commander of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Military Personnel Command, and a chemical engineer, explained that Canada is currently undergoing a gender review panel to become more inclusive. Women have been a part of the Canadian forces since the 1980s, and as per the Canadian Constitution, “respect for every individual is equal under the law without discrimination,” she stated. Lt. Gen. Whitecross said the Canadian Forces are now reviewing female Soldiers as both, mothers and Soldiers, in order to maximize their skills and experience as well as promote a work-life balance so that mothers and fathers don’t feel they must give up their personal and family lives in order to get ahead in their military careers. “This conference can only be a success if both genders are present,” she said.
For Honduran Army Health Services Colonel Irma Azucena Baquedano Canales, “nowadays, it’s not about women having to adapt to being in the Military, but rather about men realizing that women are already part of the Force.” Col. Baquedano, who has served in Honduras’s Military for 30 years, was the country’s first female battalion commander, overseeing 272 Soldiers and 13 Officers from all military branches. She feels that Honduras has offered her and others like her all the same opportunities to join and grow within the Force. “As long as women pass all the mental, physical, and other requirements to join, and if they gain ground within their space with dedication and education... the doors are wide open for them.”
Women have been active in the Mexican Military for close to 100 years, since their War of Independence. Currently, women comprise close to 20 percent of the almost 56,000-strong Mexican Armed Forces. During the North American country presentations, Colonel Olga Juarez Patiño, from the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), said, “Mexico’s implementation of gender policies within the Military has allowed men and women to become aware of the benefits that working together can bring. It has allowed more women to venture into areas previously aimed at only men.”
Col. Juarez is a military surgeon within SEDENA. She specializes in aerospace medicine and was the first Mexican female military nurse to graduate from the military medical school. “The gender equality policies implemented by SEDENA are an integral part of national and international standards, and we are in the process of updating our laws and regulations to include equal pay, equal working hours, tasks, and opportunities for advancement,” she said.
During her presentation, U.S. Air Force Colonel Monica Partridge, Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) Commandant at Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland, Texas, also discussed education as an integral part of implementing change. “It is important to educate men and women equally in order to better incorporate women into the Military,” she said. For example, she cited, at the Ground Defense Leadership Course taught at IAAFA, students are required to participate in a land navigation exercise in which instructors take the students to Camp Bullis, Texas, which is a large combat training area northeast of San Antonio, divide the personnel into teams, give them a compass, a map, their objective, and send them on their way. “If you learn to be a part of a team, it sets the foundation to later see your military unit as your team. Training together takes a change in mindset, and it is up to senior leaders to help set the standard for respect, inclusion, and equality.”
The panels and country presentations led to some key take-aways, including reframing the issue from a “women’s issue” to an issue of mission effectiveness; the importance of implementing policies to effect change; the importance of having a proactive senior leadership staff that understands the importance of having an inclusive and diverse environment; and creating research, guidelines, and strategic action plans to empower change within each military force. “They are not women Marines, women Soldiers, or women Airmen,” said Adm. Tidd. “They are Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and leaders, full stop.” he concluded. The generalized consensus at the end of the day lies in that education is primordial in creating more inclusive militaries, regardless of the country.