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African Women Try to Change Their Countries’ Militaries

FILE - Female soldiers march in a parade as part of celebrations of Congo's 50th anniversary of independence, in Kinshasa, Congo Wednesday, June 30, 2010.
African Women Try to Change Their Countries’ Militaries
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For hundreds of years, African women have been important to the peace and security of the continent.

In the 17th century, a group of female soldiers, known as the Women Warriors of Dahomey, defended their homeland against invaders in what is now the country of Benin.

Eritrean women fought alongside their men during Eritrea’s 30-year fight for independence in the 20th century. The women also healed the wounded and repaired equipment for return to the battlefield.

African women, however, continue to face harassment and discrimination at all levels of military service. And when the conflicts ease up, they often receive less recognition than male armed forces members.

A collage of images of female soldiers displayed in Asmara, Eritrea.
A collage of images of female soldiers displayed in Asmara, Eritrea.

Women face trials

In South Africa, changes in gender policy have led to a slow improvement in the years since the end of racial separation. Women now make up nearly one fourth of the country’s full-time armed forces. But difficulties remain.

The problems are documented in research by the African Peacekeeping Network and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Its study found that women are still considered less capable than men in the armed forces.

Women are not permitted to serve in battle and “weapon training was limited to self-defense.” The higher or better-paid jobs were given to men, not women. The report said this “had more to do with the conservative attitudes of broader society towards women, than the military itself.”

In some African countries, women serve in smaller numbers in the armed forces. In others, women are blocked from some duties or barred from joining the military altogether.

Leading armies

That has not prevented some women from rising to the highest positions in their countries' militaries.

For example, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is the longest-serving female defense minister on the African continent. She has been South Africa’s defense minister since 2012. Kenya’s defense minister, Raychelle Omamo, has served since 2013. In the past two years, Kenya and Uganda appointed their first female major generals.

And, Marie-Noëlle Koyara has led the Central African Republic’s armed forces for nearly two years.

Elizabeth Fitzsimmons is the United States’ deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. She told VOA, “We have a democratically elected government [in the Central African Republic]. We have a military with a minister of defense at the head who is a woman. And I think that speaks volumes about the potential for cooperation between the United States and the Central African Republic.”

A female colonel of the Libyan Army holds the national flag as she waits with other soldiers for African leaders at Tripoli's airport, Libya, Sunday, April 10, 2011. (AP/Pier Paolo Cito)
A female colonel of the Libyan Army holds the national flag as she waits with other soldiers for African leaders at Tripoli's airport, Libya, Sunday, April 10, 2011. (AP/Pier Paolo Cito)

Peacekeeping role

The United Nations praises the work of women as peacekeepers. It says female peacekeeping soldiers can help bring women in conflict areas into the peace process and give them a voice.

Female peacekeepers can assist victims of sexual violence and protect children from violence in ways male soldiers cannot. In some cultures, only female peacekeepers can speak to women in need of aid. That has led to a higher number of women in civilian peacekeeping positions, but not in military peacekeeping operations.

In the seven active peacekeeping operations in Africa, women make up less than 4 percent of military personnel.

Bintou Keita of Guinea is the U.N.’s assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations. She said the U.N. is working to achieve gender parity by the year 2030.

Keita wrote, "Women peacekeepers act as role models in the local environment, inspiring women and girls in often male-dominated societies to push for their own rights and for participation in peace processes.”

Fatuma Ahmed is Kenya’s first female major general. She told Kenya CitizenTV, “We have doctors. We have engineers. We have lawyers. We have jet pilots. We have pilots in air defense. … We are spoiled for choice. This is just the beginning.”

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Salem Solomon reported this story for Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

harassment - n. action of annoying or bothering someone repeatedly

gender - n. the state of being male or female

attitude - n. a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person's behavior

speak volumes - v. to show something very clearly

achieve - v. to reach a goal

parity - n. the state of being equal