This past December 2015, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that female military personnel will now be able to join all units of the U.S. armed forces. The lifting of gender-based restrictions in the U.S. military is a historical decision as it opens the door for women to join elite special forces and to be deployed to the front lines. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has received the backing of the commanders of the U.S. armed forces regarding this decision, though the Marine Corps have reservations.
As for Latin America, the region accepts women into its armed forces and in recent years a number of female officers have been promoted to the highest echelons of the military hierarchy. For example in 2012, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro named Carmen Melendez as the country’s first admiral while in March 2015 Gina Reque Terán became Bolivia’s first female Army general. Most recently, as one of her final acts as head of state, this past October then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina promoted María Isabel Pansa to the rank of Army General.
Women becoming generals or admirals is important, but I would highlight that we do not hear much, if at all, of women participating in combat operations. Granted, Latin America (thankfully) does not have ongoing inter-state conflicts (the last war was between Peru and Ecuador in 1995), but throughout my research I have not heard about female soldiers taking part in front-line internal security operations in Colombia, Mexico or Peru.
In Peru, female military service is voluntary but there is a great interest among Peruvian women to join the armed forces. A March 2015 article in the Peruvian daily Diario Correo mentions that there isan annual 20% increase of women joining the Peruvian Army, and bases in Arequipa, including one called Salaverry, are now accepting female soldiers. Moreover, last December 2013 a major milestone was reached: for the first time a female cadet, Vanessa Torres Sullca, graduated as “sword of honor” (the top of her class) from the Peruvian Army training school, the Escuela Militar de Chorrillos.
As in other countries, female personnel generally carry out support operations, including administrative duties. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Peruvian women in uniform do not face danger. The best example actually comes from the Peruvian police (PNP). In 2012 Captain Nancy Flores Páucar, a police pilot, was killed when her helicopter came under fire from Shining Path insurgents. While the aircraft managed to escape, Captain Flores Páucar died, making her the first female pilot in the history of the Peruvian police to die in the line of duty. In other words, even though female personnel may not be deployed to the front lines of a conflict, they can easily be involved in a firefight and become casualties.
While it is unlikely that female soldiers will be deployed to hunt down Shining Path narco-insurgents in the Peruvian highlands, they will hopefully have bigger roles in other initiatives. Case in point, Peru could deploy more female military personnel to its peacekeeping operations. Fortunately, this is already happening: a number of female military personnel joined the Compañia Peru, the Peruvian unit that is participating in the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), earlier this year. According to reports, the female deployment included four officers, including a doctor from the Air Force, and 20 technicians.
The role of women in the military is a sensitive, if not controversial, topic in any country. Hopefully the ongoing changes in the U.S. military will foment a serious discussion regarding this topic across the Western Hemisphere, including in Peru. Peruvian women already put their lives on the line in both the Andean country’s armed forces and the police. The very least they deserve is a discussions at the higher echelons of the Peruvian government and military regarding what future opportunities they should have in order to continue defending their homeland.