Women Pave The Way in Guatemalan Army

Slowly but surely, women are making progress, gaining positions in the Armed Forces of this Central American nation.
Karen Cardona/Diálogo | 17 March 2017

Capacity Building

Colonel Fabiola Enríquez, chief of Military Health Services, is in charge of protecting the health of Army personnel. (Photo: Guatemalan Army)

The Guatemalan Army’s Military Code mandates women can aspire to a three–star ranking in their professional Army careers. The country’s Army opened its doors to the country’s female population in 1994, when the Polytechnic Institute — the national university-level military training center — was transformed.

Out of a total of 23,255 service members, 1,526 are women. Among them are 112 officers, 23 senior officers, 95 NCOs, 22 senior NCOs, 87 senior NCOs with specialized university technical training, 881 specialists, and 306 junior enlisted.

“In the Guatemalan Army we women are trained to fulfill every one of the positions and missions that are delegated to us by the Army’s high command,” said Lieutenant Colonel Karen Pérez, spokesperson for the Guatemalan Army. “Currently, we have women officers in military health care, logistics, procurement, infantry, communications, military police, and engineering.”

“The opportunities are the same for everyone and we have never been relegated to areas that we are not trained for,” said Colonel Fabiola Enríquez, head of Military Health Services. In the Army, women also take part in civilian patrols. At least 300 women perform that role.

“It’s no Garden of Eden”

“I have never seen an order or an instruction that said that the notification was for men only. Even though I was a pioneer in the armed forces, I never suffered discrimination of any kind,” said Colonel Edith Vargas, who has 30 years of military experience. According to Col. Vargas, the Army is characterized by valuing the experience and capabilities of its personnel, not their gender. “It’s no Garden of Eden, but if one is capable of adapting, learning, and understanding the laws, principles, and values, women can grow into their careers without any problem.” Col. Vargas explained that when the Army first began accepting women, they filled positions as nurses, secretaries, and cooks; but gradually they began moving into other professional areas.

Lieutenant Colonel Karen Pérez, spokesperson for the Guatemalan Army, is in charge of conveying the institution’s official position to the media. (Photo: Guatemalan Army)

Professional fields

The role of women in the Guatemalan Army is growing day by day. It opened its Office of Gender in 2015, where the authorities ensure that the rights of women in the armed forces are respected and that opportunities for dialogue and achievement are opened up to its female service members.

The legal framework within which the Guatemalan Army operates does not allow women to become generals, but discussions are starting to take place around that issue. “The vision behind the legislation dates back 30 years. Today, our efforts are focused on changing things and allowing women to develop themselves even more,” said Col. Enríquez, who, in addition to her role in the health care unit, represents the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense at the National Office for Women and also maintains ties with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). She notes that one day, Guatemala may have a female general.

“If the Military Code can be changed, it will benefit not only women but men as well, because right now the situation is the same for both with respect to our duties,” she stated.

“I see women as having a wide open future in the military because they are fully capable of advancing to become generals”, said Mario Mérida, an analyst with expertise in military affairs. “Right now, that’s not possible, because it would be a violation of the Military Code. But the path has already been paved, through their efforts.”

Mérida explained that women have gained stronger footing within the Armed Forces since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, following 36 years of civil war. The Army is the institution that has most faithfully complied with the peace accords, and that has contributed to its democratization. “The Army has made huge qualitative advancements in terms of the role of women within the armed service,” Mérida affirmed, recalling how women who felt a calling to serve in the Armed Forces once had to go to Mexico to graduate as officers.

The professional ambitions of women who yearn to serve in the Army have also affected the nuclear family. “I like my work, I like what I do, I like the military; it’s a very noble institution that serves Guatemala. I’ve attained the rank of lieutenant colonel through my own hard work,” Lt. Col. Pérez said. “I’m a mother. I have a daughter who’s 12. I sacrifice time with my daughter to fulfill the role that I have been assigned. But it’s something that, in the end, is reflected in the service that one does for the Guatemalan people.”

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