A year ago Germany’s Minister of Defense, Rudolf Scharping, broke with tradition by allowing women to take up arms and engage in combat. Prior to January 2001, they were only permitted to join the ranks of the medical corps and military bands.
The first few female recruits didn’t have an easy time. They were suddenly thrown into a system that had been historically male dominated. Although they were thoroughly physically prepared for the army, they found themselves confronted with a whole list of new challenges ranging from the practical to the emotional.
Fifty of the first women troops gathered in Berlin this week to discuss the challenges they had faced in the past year. According to Birgit Tholt, a young female recruit, the meeting offered a chance for "extensive exchange."
"It was very interesting to learn how other female soldiers have fared in the past few months," Tholt said.
Most of her female comrades reported that in the beginning they were treated with extreme caution by the male colleagues and supervisors. "But we don’t want special treatment. We can certainly stand our ground," Tholt explained.
Most of the women agreed that their experiences over the last year were generally positive. The initial practical difficulties, such as the toilets and sleeping arrangements, had been overcome. Even the traditional male mindset was slowly being changed.
General Harald Kujat, Germany’s top military officer, has been closely observing integration of women in the army and is confident that male and female soldiers were working effectively together after only one year.
"This is really a success story," Kujat said. "Of course there are problems, but most of these are societal" and not inherent to the military situation.
"The German army offers interesting opportunities, demanding opportunities. Most of the women want opportunities to cope with demanding situations and gain personal experience."
Ramona von Busch, a 24-year-old recruit, who fulfilled her life-long dream of becoming a soldier last year, echoed Kujat’s statements about challenges.
"I can’t say I’ve come across any serious problems, but it really is a matter of proving yourself," she said.
Sergeant-Major Heidi Kuhlmann, knows about this. Last year when she put herself forward as platoon leader, she ruffled a lot of feathers.
"I’m only 1.61 meters, but I’ve been carrying the same backpacks as the men. I believe I’ve shown that you don’t have to be 1.80 meters and to shout in order to lead," Kuhlmann told her fellow female soldiers.
Low drop-out rate
So far only 20, or less than one percent, of last year’s female recruits have given up because of difficulties with men. In the meantime, nearly 140 women have joined peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
About 2,000 women have signed up for combat roles in the past 12 months, making the total number of women in the military 7,000. This is about 3.5 percent of the total troops.
General Kujat expects the number of female soldiers to rise over the next few years to about seven or eight percent of the total fighting forces. The NATO average is somewhere between seven and ten percent.
Germany has one of the lowest numbers of female soldiers in NATO. Norway, which permitted women to join in all combat functions in 1985 and the United States have the largest percentage.