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In traditional Chile, meet the soldiers with pearl earrings

By Jen RossContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2005


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.

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"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.

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.