In traditional Chile, meet the soldiers with pearl earrings

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Standing at a bus stop outside Chile's military academy, Mariela Gomez can scarcely contain her joy. She'll soon say goodbye to her family and friends who've risen early to see her off.

"I've dreamed of this for a long time," says Miss Gomez, sporting simple pearl earrings - the only jewelry allowed women in combat fatigues. "I wanted to do something for my country. When I hear the national anthem, it's like when you see a guy - I get butterflies. That's why I'm here."

Moments later, she files aboard a bus with other female conscripts, leaving with a broad smile and a shy wave.

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In one of Latin America's most conservative countries, women are making significant inroads into its most male-dominated institution. The increasing role of women in all levels of Chile's military is part of a larger societal shift over the past year that includes laws legalizing divorce for the first time, outlawing sexual harassment, and making domestic abuse a crime.

The transformation of the military is championed by Michelle Bachelet, who was the country's first female defense minister, and is now the front-runner in next month's presidential elections. Chile's military reforms are considered by many to be a model in Latin America.

Today, 15 percent of Chile's soldiers are women - one of the highest participation rates in the world. That compares to about 14.5 in the US active duty forces.

And in Chile, 1 in 5 new Army officers in training is female, as are 1 in 3 students in military aviation colleges - impressive statistics in a region where some countries still ban women from joining the military.

Chile's Army opened its doors to women in 1974, during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But women were only allowed to pursue administrative or teaching roles. It wasn't until 2000 that the Air Force allowed women to enroll on an equal footing with men.

It wasn't easy being a woman in Chile's military, says retired subordinate officer Zrinska Kralj, who joined the military in 1977, working as a secretary handling personnel in the war secretariat. "There were always men reminding us that we couldn't do certain things because we were women, especially when we had to do military drills," she says. "The armed forces are a macho institution."

Still, Ms. Kralj says she believes the road will be easier for today's new recruits, because the country's entire societal climate in becoming more liberal. "I think there will be resentment from some officials about the fact that women could become their superiors, but I think it's an issue that will be overcome."

In 2001, both Chile's Army and Air Force opened their doors to female conscripts. The Army began with a pilot project to create 60 spots for female volunteers. The response was so overwhelming, it has increased those spaces every year since. This year, 1,000 spots were opened up - and more than 3,000 women applied.

In 2003, another important change came when the Army allowed women to take part in all the same courses as men, including combat weaponry and artillery courses - essential for reaching the higher echelons in any military career. As a result, Chile's female officers can now aspire to the highest ranks, including general or commander in chief of the Army.

It's a right unique within Latin America. Even in Argentina, where women entered the armed forces earlier, such ranks are off-limits. "Today, we have the same rights as our male counterparts in the Army," says Lieut. Viviana Chamorro, who entered Chile's military college nine years ago. She says she's watched the recent changes with great satisfaction: "We now have no disadvantages at any level."

Such efforts are part of a broader Chilean effort to makeover the military's image - one which became synonymous with human rights abuses during its 17-year dictatorship. Since Chile's return to democracy in 1990, left-wing governments have been trying to modernize the military.

Shortly after becoming Chile's first female defense minister, Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet spearheaded efforts to upgrade the defense sector. Those efforts culminated in March of this year, when Chile made women's inclusion in the military a national policy, spelling out their equality of opportunity in the official white paper known as "National Defense Book.

The efforts have earned Chile international recognition. Last month, in a competition looking at gender equity and development policies among 29 nations, the InterAmerican Development Bank gave Chile a special mention. Last year, Chile's female officers served in an armed international peacemaking mission for the first time - the UN mission to Haiti.

Chile has been actively internationalizing its experience, with female officers training militaries in Ecuador and Paraguay on how to incorporate women.

Still, University of Chile researcher Carolina Sancho cautions that women have not made big inroads in the Navy. They still can't serve on ships - although that will change by 2007.

But beyond how many women are included, or what they are allowed to do, their treatment is key, says Marta Maurás, secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"In the US, there have been problems with discrimination and abuse of women in the armed forces, where they've advanced considerably in terms of numbers but not necessarily conduct," she says. "I don't know of any studies, but in Chile we don't seem to have abuses of that nature. It seems that ... there's a serious effort to create a force that is disciplined and human."

Ms. Maurás says Chile's advances reflect a consolidation of democracy. They're also part of a PR effort to put a kinder, gentler face on the military's outdated image.

"We're an example to other countries," says Claudia Bahamundo, one of the first three women in Chile to be accepted as a special Army reserve officer last year.

"The idea is to change the image of our soldiers as terrorists and assassins. I think, with more women inside, the military will change for the better, because you'll see a more human side ... a feminine touch."

Women in the military

Percentage of total forces

• Chile: 15.0
• US: 14.5
• NATO: 12.6
• Canada: 12.5
• France: 12.5
• Britain: 9.0
• Germany: 5.5

Sources: NATO; Women in Western Armed Forces by Katia Sorin; Chile Ministry of Defense.

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