BERLIN — The German military is changing. What was once a male bastion has slowly been taking on a more female hue, with women accounting for almost one in 10 of those serving in the armed forces.
Now the military, or Bundeswehr, says it wants to see even more women in its ranks. “Currently 9 percent of all soldiers are women,” Chief of Staff Volker Wieker told Bild am Sonntag recently. “Our goal is a combined ratio of 15 percent.”
To achieve that, the army intends to make itself more attractive to female recruits, in particular by improving family-friendly structures. Yet problems persist.
Already, the transformation has been rapid, with the Bundeswehr only really opening up to women just over a decade ago. While women were first allowed to join the Bundeswehr in 1975, they were confined to serving in the medical and music corps.
The idea of female soldiers serving in active combat, however, was still very much taboo. In fact, a ban was even anchored in the constitution.
That proved controversial. Some feminists wanted equal rights for women extended to the military. Others rejected the army as a pillar of patriarchal structures, while many on the left rejected anything to do with the military. Conservatives, meanwhile, were firmly against the notion of women fighting. Former Defense Minister Volker Rühe, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats, once said: “I don’t think much of women in tanks.”
Nevertheless, the ban was finally overturned in 2000 — not by German politicians but after a young electrician by the name of Tanja Kreil took her case to the European Court of Justice. She argued that her application to join the Bundeswehr had been rejected on the basis of her gender rather than qualifications. The court found in her favor, ruling that Germany was contravening European Union equality legislation.
As a result, Article 12a of the German constitution, known as the Basic Law, had to be changed. Instead of stating that women could not carry weapons, it now says women cannot be forced to carry weapons.
And once that hurdle was removed many more women began signing up.
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While there were around 4,500 women in the military in 2000, there are now just over 18,000, out of a total of 197,000 active soldiers. They can be found in all sections of the army, serving as military police officers, working as sonar technicians on U-boats or flying Tornado fighter planes. In fact Ulrike Flender, the first female fighter pilot, has been named one of Germany’s “100 greatest women” by mass circulation newspaper Bild.
Yet the opening up of the army to women has always been on a voluntary basis. That was not the case for men, until recently. They had to either do a year’s military service or opt for an alternative such as working in a hospital.
In 2011 conscription was scrapped as part of an overhaul of the German armed forces. A new streamlined professional army was to be created, more in keeping with Germany’s new military role in the world. With foreign deployments in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan, recruits that just spend a year in the forces are of little military use, yet training them is expensive. By cutting out the conscripts, the army is expected to save €8.3 billion ($11 billion).
Yet changing demographics, with fewer young people leaving school, as well as plummeting unemployment and even a looming skills shortage have meant that the army has had to up its game when it comes to recruiting professional soldiers. And that focus very much includes women, a relatively untapped potential source of new recruits.
Chief of Staff Volker Wieker insists that the Bundeswehr is making an effort to become more attractive to female recruits. “We have already built [daycares] in some of the bigger barracks,” he told Bild am Sonntag, adding that the intention is to further expand on the provision of daycare. "It's quite clear, we must clearly improve compatibility of family and career.”
Since 2005 there has been a so-called soldiers’ equality law, which is supposed to make it easier to combine a family with a military career, and includes flexible work schedules. Another aim of the legislation is to root out discrimination in the forces. Equality officers are assigned to units to ensure that it is adhered to.
However, the latest annual report by Hellmut Königshaus, the parliamentary commissioner to the military, found that the Bundeswehr was failing to deliver sufficiently on these family friendly measures, such as providing enough parent-child rooms or daycare facilities. The report pointed out, for example, that another 1,000 daycare places were still needed.
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Meanwhile, other problems persist for the women soldiers.
In a book written to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening up of the army to women, Bärbel Reichardt, herself an officer, related the experiences of these new female soldiers and revealed the discrimination they can sometimes face. “Somehow we always have per se a special position,” she wrote. “During officer training at the Bundeswehr, one is either treated very carefully by the male officers or rejected.”
That is echoed in a report by the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences from 2008 which argued that the process of integrating women into the military “cannot be described as having been completed.”
For a start, it found that many male soldiers were not happy about the presence of female soldiers, and that they rated their female comrades’ abilities lower than other male soldiers. It also found that male soldiers saw women as competition when it came to promotion opportunities.
As a result of its research the institute recommended that intensive gender training be institutionalized in the army.
There is also another serious problem that many female soldiers face: sexual harassment and even assault.
Research by the institute found that 58 percent of female soldiers said they had been the subject of sexist or salacious comments, while 19 percent had had to deal with unwanted physical contact or attempts at such contact. Meanwhile 4.6 percent said that they were aware of sexual assault, including rape, or attempted assault in their units.
Nevertheless, in his latest annual report, parliamentary commissioner Könighaus was upbeat about the developments in the Bundeswehr. “Individual cases of misogynistic behaviour, including comments by comrades or superiors, or sexual harassment have been reported,” he wrote.
“Where this was proved, it has been punished either through disciplinary action or at times prosecution.”
Yet, on the whole the situation was improving, he found. “Aside from these individual cases, in areas with a high percentage of women the tone has become more respectful.”