Gender Equality in the South African National Defence Force

A comparative look—with recommendations—on the role of women in the South African military historically, currently and moving into the future.

The South African government has repeatedly declared its commitment to gender equality. It has not only ratified and signed International Conventions in this regard, but has also made provisions on this in the South African constitution. The Department of Defence (DOD) as a government institution is required to comply with these constitutional imperatives and pursue government policy. Subsequently gender related constitutional imperatives were reaffirmed in the White Paper on Defence and the Defence Review.

During apartheid era women particularly African women were oppressed and discriminated against, regarded as dependents and inferior to men confined to domestic chores either as housewives not given equal opportunities as their male counterparts in healthcare, education and job opportunities. This was the case in most militaries around the world including the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The participation of women in the armed forces has been significantly influenced by the legacy of apartheid. The SANDF started recruitment of women into the military in 1994.

In the world today, gender has become an important issue. The growing realization that limitations of women’s access to resources and decision making also limits their ability to develop and exercise their full capabilities for their own benefit and that of society has prompted efforts to provide equal opportunities for men and women. The message has become clear that development cannot take place if it excludes half of the human race (women).

The question of gender equity in South Africa is a re-awakening, as it includes the definition of the self, the renewal of societal gender relations, and institutional arrangements of understanding gender perspectives and relationships that previously were not possible. Gender equality is a process of ensuring that institutions respond to frameworks that create a conducive environment for women by redressing gender inequalities and fostering the empowerment of women’s development.

Gender is a socially and culturally defined concept and the legal principles embodied in it previously supported the exclusions of women from the socio-political processes based on the biological differences between men and women. Further, society promoted the patriarchal domination of women by men. This has resulted in gender discrimination, inequality and perpetuation of the view that women are physically and intellectually inferior to men.

The United Nations Development Program suggests that gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to the achievement of the millennium goals, not only as just and desirable ends but also goals for obtaining gender mainstreaming and gender responsive programs.

The 1998 SANDF white paper on defense emphasized that the democratic changes post 1994 required fundamental transformation of the economic relations, political structures, culture and values of the South African society to accommodate women. These changes had major implications for the transformation of the SANDF which resulted in the integration process of the statutory and non-statutory forces, namely: South African Defence Force (SADF), Umkhonto we-Sizwe (MK), Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) and the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei Armies (TBVC).

The integration process further created opportunities for both access and advancement of women in the SANDF as they created an enabling environment to pursue gender objectives and equality for women. While women constituted the majority in the country previously, they were inadequately represented in the SANDF; especially in decision-making structures to effect critical policy changes.

Gender Equality in the United States Military

The United States has more women in its military than any other nation. Over 35,300 women served in the military during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm. Many of them saw action just like their male counterparts, as traditional lines between the front and rear dissolved in the midst of modern weapons technology.

Throughout Operation Desert Storm women performed flight operations within the combat zone. A number of women participated in support and rescue assignments that were as physically demanding as combat and involved significant risk of harm. Despite the women’s involvement in these operations, the US defense policy stipulated that they should not be involved in combat. The experience of military women during World War II demonstrated that women are capable of functioning effectively in combat zones under conditions of extreme stress for extended periods.

Most women were discharged from the military at the end of World War II and did not receive permanent status in the regular and reserve forces until 1948. However, after much debate Congress passed the 1948 Integration of Women in the Armed Forces Act, which established permanent places for women in the regular services at the time. However, their enlistment was limited to 2 percent of the total armed forces and they were restricted to non-combat assignments.

Women currently comprise approximately 11 percent of the overall services in the US military, Air Force having the largest percentage, 29 percent and the Marine Corps the smallest, at approximately 5 percent. Although the services vary considerably regarding the opportunities made available to women all of them, until just recently excluded women from all combat designated positions.

Since 1974 the Army has been training men and women together but due to complaints of sexual harassment, the Department of Defense has reviewed the concept of joint training of men and women. However, other corrective measures taken to prevent sexual harassment have been put in place, including the establishment of a hotline to enable women to break the silence and report sexual harassment anytime.

Gender Equality in Namibian Defence Force

After South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) launched its armed struggle on 26 August 1966 at Onghulumbashe forest in northern Namibia, women also joined their male counterparts in the prolonged and bitter struggle. The formation of the SWAPO Women’s Council facilitated women’s involvement in many spheres of the liberation struggle including the leadership of the liberation movement, i.e. some women were members of the Central Committee of the South West African People’s Organization of Namibia and the Military Council of People’s Liberation Army of Namibia. Since the 1970s, the SWAPO Women’s Council has made considerable headway in organizing women in the country to join the liberation struggle, particularly the armed struggle.

Namibian women played a crucial role in SWAPO right from the early beginning of the armed liberation struggle, and the emancipation of women from sources of op­pression both colonial and traditional was central to their aspirations. Women were trained as soldiers in all military fields in the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

As the struggle developed, PLAN female fighters became specialized in military disciplines such as nursing, artillery marksmanship, radio communication, air defense guns, sabotage, reconnaissance, intelligence and even as drivers of military vehicles.

The role of women did not end with the war, but continued also in the process to independence i.e. in the interim period, demobilization, Constituent Assembly and formulation of new political dispensation. During the implementation of United Nations Resolution 435, the process to independence commenced. The negotiating parties settled on a transitional plan to elections and independence jointly supervised by the United Nations Technical Assistance Group (UNTAG) and the South African administration. This process started with the demobilization of troops and repatriation of refugees to Namibia and eventually ended in the phase of integrating them into society.

The International Inter-Parliamentary Union (1998) expressed that Namibian women have been key actors in the liberation struggle. She also adds that since Namibia’s independence in 1990, Namibian women have been contributing very actively to the country’s political and economic development. By 1998, Namibian women had attained the level of 40 percent of elected candidates in local elections and 18 percent in the Namibian Parliament (International Inter-Parliamentary Union). However, not everyone has hailed this achievement.

With independence, women in Namibia hoped that their return out of exile would provide impetus to the women movement inside Namibia.

It has been reported that although the projected force levels of the new Namibian army are low, numbering about 5,000, no women had been incorporated. Many women were reintegrated in various govern­ment institutions, but female ex-combatants were not employed in strategic positions. Employed ex-PLAN combatants felt that the reintegration process was successful because it united former warring parties into one unified defense force. While that might be true, the integration process favored ex-combatants who were living in cities and those in the rural areas were left to fend for themselves. A large number of the latter were female ex-combatants. Meanwhile, those female ex-combatants employed in the municipalities, especially in the city of Windhoek, are entitled to do jobs of the laborers but the salary they receive is equivalent to cleaners’ salaries. These female ex-combatants feel that they are ill treated on the account of gender and ex-combatants status. Women participated in the revolutionary struggle and were trained in all military fields. Women’s contribution continued even after the war, they played a big role during independence of Namibia.

Gender Equality in the Former South African Defence Force

In 1970 a decision was taken by the former South African Defence Force Defence Council to appoint women in the military, in order to release men for operational duties.

According to the Sunday Times, 12 April 1971, the Army Women’s College in George was later established in 1971 to train women separately within the SADF. At the opening ceremony of the college, the then President P.W. Botha described this recruitment of white women as an act of faith in the women of South Africa and a manifestation of faith that the civilian population was preparing, in a an organized way, a national wall against military threats as well as emergencies and national disasters.

Although the Defence Act (Act 44 of 1957) as amended did not contain any discriminatory sections against women on any ground, white women were restricted to developing their career aspirations within the support musterings of the military such as finance, personnel, logistics, intelligence, medical services and welfare. They were not appointed to positions which could result in close combat or positions of high foreign exposure, for example as military attachés.

The exclusion of women in combat roles is not supported showing that women were marginalized and not given equal opportunities in the former SADF during apartheid era; evidence shows that women are as capable as their male counterparts.

This differed from the role of mainly black women serving in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the revolutionary force of the African National Congress, and African Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) where they served in many frontline positions. Many of these women, now integrated into the SANDF, have come out strongly in favor of gender equality. Unlike many European countries, the recent expanded role of women in the South African armed forces has not been due to a shortage of qualified men, or due to a perceived threat to the nation, a shift to an all-volunteer force or change in mission definition. The driving force since 1994 has been legislative and incidentally has coincided with the shift to an all-volunteer force and in mission focus as peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and internal deployment become the most likely roles of the SANDF. It is evident that women played a significant role in the revolutionary movements fighting for social and political change.

South African Liberation Movement Armies

Women in Umkhoto we Sizwe (MK) and APLA were subjected to the same training as their male counterparts, and were involved in combat. This was in line with the policies of the African National Congress and Pan African Congress. The ANC policies were based on the principles of freedom and equality for all, as well as the promotion of non-sexism. Thus women were actively involved in the four pillars in which the struggle for democracy was waged i.e. mass democratic movement, ANC/MK underground structures, mobilization of the international community, and military activities. The extent of their involvement can only be judged in terms of the overall struggle for democracy.

The history, culture and level of development within society often shape the different views. In South Africa, for example in contrast to the liberal feminism of western societies, the feminist stance among mainly African women is associated with the revolutionary struggle leaning towards socialist feminism, asserting the equal right of women to take up arms with men against repression and injustice.

Widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of the armed struggle and the notion of a just war means that the Western connection between feminism and pacifism is loosened in the South African context. For black women, women’s rights remain submissive to the issue of race and the social, political and economic oppression they experience. Only recently have women begun to challenge this triple repression, but even so this has not been from a feminist perspective aimed at empowering women, but rather at liberating them.

Currently, the women’s movement in South Africa is growing in stature with a number of women participating in politics at both the national and regional level, pushing for a wide range of gender reforms through various gender forums and gender commissions. Acknowledgement has been given to the plight of women in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 and a Commission for Gender Equality was established in 1997 to develop an inventory of legislation which discriminates against women. Areas of concern are the need to amend patriarchal customary rules, develop gender-sensitive policies and laws, institutionalize means to reduce violence against women and integrate gender considerations into macro-economic planning and national budgets. An Office of the Status of Women has been established in the office of the Deputy President tasked to establish gender units within the various state departments, including the SANDF, to monitor and audit the progress of gender equality.

The reform of policy relating to women in the military is legally and politically driven rather than through the intervention of any particular feminist lobby demanding equal rights for women. Only recently has a small, but active feminist voice emerged among the senior female officer ranks pressing for greater participation of women in decision-making and greater sensitivity to gender. These voices will no doubt gain more momentum once the Gender Forums initiated in 1997 are established and begin to address the gender issues that limit women’s career advancement.

The historical overview of women’s involvement in the armed forces indicates that given the opportunity, women can also play an active role in armed formations. Therefore the defense of a country should not be regarded as an exclusive male prerogative.

Gender Equality Policy of the SANDF According to the White Paper on Defence the SANDF acknowledges the right of women to serve in all ranks and positions, including combat roles. The White Paper on Defence further stipulates that in order to secure the legitimacy of the armed forces the SANDF is committed to the goal of overcoming the legacy of racial and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it states that it will ensure that the SANDF and its leadership in particular, is broadly representative of the South African population.

In pursuance of this policy, a gender sub-directorate has been established within the Equal Opportunities Chief Directorate in Pretoria. It has been tasked, amongst other things, to monitor the advancement of women and to ensure that they are properly represented, and also ensure that women have every opportunity to participate equally with male counterparts and liaise internationally with other organizations.

The SANDF is one of the few armed forces in the world which accepts the right of women to serve in combat. There are women crews in the Artillery and Armoured Corps of the Army, and the Air Force has women trainee pilots. The 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 South African Infantry Battalions deploy women infantry personnel as part of their contingent on external operational duties in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

This increased to 13 percent in 2000, rising rapidly to 20 percent by January 2002 largely due to the legislative pressures for gender equality. The racial gender profile also changed significantly. In 1994, when the new SANDF was formed, there were only 712 African women mainly from the former MK and APLA, compared to 5,714 white women serving in the military. By January 2000, white women comprised only 25 percent of the total number of women in the military, compared to 61 percent African, just over 1 percent Indian and 12 percent Coloured. However, a disproportionate number of white women held senior ranks, given that some have served in the former SADF since the early 1970s. As the number of African women serving in the SANDF increases, this has brought to the fore a number of cultural considerations, hitherto unknown to the former white male dominated SADF. The social construction of gender, the importance attached to gender differences and cultural interpretations of gender has considerable implications for the inclusion and participation of women.

The SANDF has the highest number of women in Africa within its ranks, only one gender officer has been appointed at Defence Headquarter’s level to address gender related issues and formulate policies in this regard. Unless additional similar appointments are made across the arms of service to address this issue, the SANDF may be seen as only paying lip service to constitutional and legislative requirements.

Institutional arrangements and monitoring mechanisms must be established to ensure that women have every opportunity to participate equally with male counterparts.

The greater the emphasis on attribution by gender, the more limited women’s participation, the more democratic the social values, the greater women’s participation in the military. Although South African women are experiencing a sense of liberation brought about by the removal of discriminatory legislation, they are still subject to cultural encapsulation specifically within the context of customary law. In fact, Section 211 of the Constitution of the RSA reinforces the importance granted to the preservation of cultural traditions of the various groups that make up society.

Yet, many of these traditions or customs are based on gender attribution and subordination. African women remain subject to a patriarchal system that relegates them to a subordinate position economically, politically and socially. Despite legislative provisions prohibiting discrimination based on gender in the Bill of Rights, African women particularly within the rural context are still treated as minors, have limited access to land and property and are subservient to their husbands. These cultural values invariably spill over to gender relations within the armed forces as can be seen from the results of a survey conducted by the Directorate Social Work (DSW) among members of the SANDF. Almost half 46.5 percent of the men responded that it is natural for males to have control over women, that wives should do what their husbands tell them 41 percent and that a man must do whatever he needs to do including using violence to ensure that his wife behaves properly.

In recent years there has been a dramatic impact on the gender profile of the SANDF; for example, in 1989 only 10 percent of the uniformed members serving in the military were women. This increased to 13 percent in 2000, rising rapidly to 20 percent by January 2002 largely due to the legislative pressures for gender equality. The racial gender profile also changed significantly. In 1994, when the new SANDF was formed, there were only 712 African women mainly from the former MK, compared to 5,714 white women serving in the military. By January 2000, white women comprised only 25 percent of the total number of women in the military, compared to 61 percent African, just over 1 percent Indian and 12 percent Coloured.

However, a disproportionate number of white women hold senior ranks, given that some have served in the former SADF since the early 1970s. As the number of African women serving in the SANDF increases, this has brought to the fore a number of cultural considerations, hitherto unknown to the former white male- dominated SADF. The social construction of gender, the importance attached to gender differences and cultural interpretations of gender has considerable implications for the inclusion and participation of women in the military. The SANDF has the highest number of women post 1994 as compared to other defense forces in Africa; the White paper on Defence and Defence Review advocate for gender related constitutionally imperatives.

Maternity Benefits

According to DoD policy no. 05/1996, women are entitled to leave for confinement. Special leave with full pay is granted for confinement for a period of four months. The policy on maternity benefits stipulates that women be considered for normal promotion during absence on maternity leave for a period of up to 12 months. The South African Military Health Service’s policy on pregnancy encourages women to report their condition. However, the mere reporting by women of their pregnancy condition is not enough. Specific guidelines should be developed on how pregnant women should participate during courses, including the physical and psychological aspects.

Although there is policy with regard to maternity benefits, this policy is not sufficiently comprehensive, missing issues such as the type and duration of training pregnant women undergo. The supervision of these women is left to the discretion of the instructors and the training institution’s interpretation of the policy. No monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure that women are not withdrawn unnecessarily. Also the question of how long a mother should be given to bond with the child before being nominated to a course has not been addressed. The policy on maternity benefits has gaps that can lead to misunderstanding in the SANDF.

Military Health Benefits

In the SANDF male members are entitled to free medical services for their legal wives and dependent children. Married women, however, are not entitled to this benefit for their dependents. This issue of medical benefits for the dependents of married women in the SANDF has been under discussion for some time. The amendment to the General Regulations of the SANDF in this regard was approved by the Department of Public Service and Administration and State Expenditure as well as the Minister of Defence. They were published in the Government Gazette on September 1998.

These amendments make provision for medical benefits for a member of the Permanent Force and of the Auxiliary service and such members’ dependents but exclude the dependents of members in the Short-term Service (STS) and the Service Corps. The actual implementation of this policy has yet to happen. When addressing this issue, the question to be examined should not be women’s eligibility to be considered as breadwinners, but their right as members of the SANDF to access all benefits enjoyed by their male counterparts. When one examines SANDF policy with regards to gender equality, one realizes that although women have been given legal equality this has not automatically guaranteed them equal treatment in terms of medical benefits.

Pension Benefits

In the past there was a differentiation between the pension contributions of married and/or single men and women. In the new dispensation all members contribute equally after changes in regulations by the government’s pension fund and the finance department. The implementation of this policy is seen as a practical measure to ensure gender equality in pension benefits. In the past, women in the same rank as men did not receive equal benefits.

The repercussions of the past discrepancies are now being felt by women who apply for voluntary severance packages from the military. The many years of contributing less than their male counterparts have meant that they receive a smaller voluntary severance package.

Suitability for Combat Roles

As is the case in other armed forces, once women participate in the military in greater numbers and in certain non-traditional roles, the debate shifts to concerns regarding their utilization in certain capacities. Should they be permitted to serve in all combat specialties? Should this be voluntary or compulsory? Are women physically and psychologically suited for combat? What effect will women have on cohesion, morale and ultimately operational effectiveness? Then there are the uniquely female concerns such as the effect of pregnancy on deployability, parental and family concerns and sexual harassment.

Implementing Gender Equality

Implementing gender equality in South Africa, there are no provisions limiting the career path of women in the SANDF and it is among the most liberal nations in this regard. Whereas prior to 1994 women were only permitted to serve in support roles, they may now be trained and serve in all ranks. Women officers, who were previously excluded from studying at the Military Academy, now comprise almost a third of the student body and in 1999, the predominantly male student body elected the first female to serve in the prestigious position of student captain.

Yet, despite the formal provisions allowing women to serve in any position, opinion is divided both within society and the military on whether women should serve in combat roles. In an opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Security Studies and the Human Sciences Research Council in 1996 testing public opinion on the question ‘should women be allowed to volunteer for combat duty’, society was almost equally divided on women serving in the frontline.

Similarly, within the SANDF during the same period the Centre for Military Studies conducted a survey testing SANDF officers opinions to the question whether women should be allowed to do combat duty in the frontline. Of these officers, 40 percent were in favor, 12 percent unsure and 48 percent disagreed.

With women now serving in combat roles, a more recent survey conducted by the SANDF’s Equal Opportunities Chief Directorate (EOCD) in February/March 2013 among all military personnel revealed some interesting findings. When military women were asked whether they would go into frontline combat if given the chance, most black African women 75 percent and Coloured women 58 percent said they would compared to 34 percent of whites. Similar findings were reported by race when asked whether they would be willing to trade a supportive role for a combat role. Opinion was divided on whether women should only receive such assignments if they choose, 41 percent supporting the volunteer option, compared to 47 percent who felt it should be compulsory for all, with the remainder being unsure. What is apparent is that white women’s views are similar to western trends in that they want the choice to serve in combat roles, while African women appear more prepared to serve in the frontline.

More women are willing to serve in combat roles, this may possibly be attributed to the role of women in the revolutionary struggle and also the fact that white women appear less willing to serve beyond the borders of South Africa

Genetic Suitability for Combat Roles

Even where women meet the job specifications and have the ability to serve in combat, opinion remains divided especially in those positions where physical demands may exceed the physiological capabilities of women.

To overcome this, most countries are striving towards gender-neutral policies that specify which specialties (combat and non-combat) require muscular strength, endurance and cardiovascular capacity. This has been the policy adopted by the SANDF. Currently, men and women receive the same training and there is no gender-specific training policy, although gender separation does take place during basic training. This was introduced after the SA Army Gymnasium found increasing rates of stress fractures in the lower leg and pelvis among women, ascribed mainly to the differences in the length of their stride and height compared to men.

In general, women are more positive about their capabilities than men. The EOCD survey revealed that while only 28 percent of women felt they did not have the ability to serve in demanding combat roles, 41 percent of males held this view. Once again the views differed by race, with more Africans 42 percent than Coloureds 37 percent and whites 30 percent expressing the opinion that women do not have the physical capability to serve in combat. These sentiments were most strongly held by African men, as 60 percent of African women felt they had the physical ability to perform in combat. This is an important point in race/gender relations within the South African context, given the subordinate role of women within traditional African culture.

Impact on Social and Task Cohesion

Another argument frequently raised against the inclusion of women in combat units is their potential effect on male bonding and the subsequent impact on cohesion and morale. The same sentiments hold true in South Africa, as shown by the EOCD survey results where 56 percent of males and a remarkable 47 percent of females supported the view that the integration of women would have a detrimental effect on unit cohesion, morale, male bonding and operational effectiveness. In general, Africans 56 percent felt more strongly than whites 49 per cent that this was so. This may seem contradictory given the role played by African women in the ANC’s liberation army, but can be explained by yet another division within the SANDF, namely the attitudes of members of the former black homeland or TBVC armies. According to the Department of Defence personnel statistics there were virtually no women from the TBVC defense forces integrated into the new SANDF.

The virtual absence of women from these ranks signifies that their lack of exposure to the capabilities of women, together with cultural considerations, probably influenced their attitudes. In this regard, I would venture to say that given the racial tension that exists within the SANDF, social and task cohesion is stronger by race than by gender.

Concerning social cohesion, the overriding factor is differences in culture and language between whites and blacks. As regards task cohesion which is associated with the ability of the unit to harness the collective, knowledge, skills and experience of all members to meet unit objectives, it relates to perceived differences in standards and levels of training. Within the SANDF there are some serious differences by race on the impact of affirmative action on operational effectiveness. Many white officers feel resentment towards what they see as the promotion of inexperienced blacks to positions not on merit but on race. The EOCD survey not only substantiates this, but shows that these sentiments are on the increase, particularly among whites and Coloureds who are of the opinion that affirmative action, which includes the rapid advancement of women, has a negative effect on the SANDF’s effectiveness. Whereas perceived double standards for men and women have been one of the factors affecting morale and cohesion in western armed forces, within South Africa the impact is clearly linked to race and gender, with the emphasis on race.

Female Concerns In The SANDF

One of the most contentious issues within the SANDF is the issue of pregnancy and childcare and the creation of a more woman-friendly environment within the SANDF. Women in the military and the Deputy Minister of Defence have been forthright in stating that pregnancy must not be used against them, but must be taken into consideration when planning and deploying women. This is bound to pose a challenge to the SANDF. As means of comparison, during the Gulf War it was found that women were three times less deployable than men, primarily due to pregnancy.

In this regard, it is of interest to note the EOCD finding regarding the effect which the admission of women into combat situations will have on mothers with small children, pregnancy and sexual harassment. Almost 50 percent of respondents expressed their concern about the effect mothers with small children at home, pregnancy and sexual harassment may have on combat situations, with only 31 percent expressing no concern and the remainder being unsure. More women 56 percent than men 46 percent had their reservations about these issues. Comparative to previous findings on willingness to serve in combat, white women 64 percent and Coloured women 61 percent were more concerned than African females 31 percent about the impact these issues would have on the assignment to positions that might involve a high probability of direct combat.

One should question the implication of these findings, given the fact that African women have more children than whites, are often single parents and primary breadwinners in their families. Single parents are seen as the greatest burden to the military because of the restrictions childcare places on the parent. In South Africa, the majority of black women carry the full share of household responsibilities, although this appears to be changing in urban households. The extended families associated with traditional African culture may provide the support base, alleviating women from their childcare responsibilities while deployed. For decades, African women have been separated from their children in search of employment, leaving their children in the care of the elderly or relatives, something few white women have had to deal with. This may explain why black African women may be more willing to be deployed for longer periods.

On the other hand, with the breakdown of these traditional values and a growing number of single women serving in the SANDF, the full impact of pregnancy and childcare responsibilities on deployability is still to be seen. International findings indicate that the impact of pregnancy on deployability is especially high in units that are disproportionately female or understaffed. Pregnancy will no doubt pose definite challenges for those responsible for future force preparation and force deployment.

Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Women

Sexual harassment is another issue associated with female integration. Within the SANDF, both sexual and gender harassment is a rising concern. Reports are that black women experience sexual and gender harassment more frequently in the workplace than whites. Not only is harassment from male colleagues said to be widespread, but in gaining employment women are expected to provide sexual favors to prospective employers. Similar rumors exist within the SANDF, although the extent of both gender and sexual harassment within the ranks is unknown, nor whether there is any variance by race, rank, gender or work environment.

What has evoked far greater concern is the increase in incidents of rape and violence against women within the SANDF, a reflection of trends evident in broader society. While internationally the abuse of women is discussed mainly within the context of female combatants and prisoners of war, women and particularly black women are the disproportionate victims of violence within South African society. A recent national study on the experiences of 1,000 women in metropolitan, urban and rural South Africa indicated that 63 percent of women had experienced sexual abuse. The average reported rape cases increased by 23 percent between 1994 and 1997 and these trends continue unabated.

The Department of Defence has formulated a policy on Violence against Women and Children that declares not only to reduce conflict against women and children during armed conflicts, but within the SANDF, among its members and their dependents. The safety of women is a grave concern not only when leaving the unit late at night, but also when deployed in the field in remote and isolated circumstances offering little protection and privacy. These concerns are justified, in light of recent findings within the SANDF that 37 percent of female employees and 30 percent of military wives report having been subject to abuse or a violent relationship. No aspect of human security is as vital as the security from physical violence, and where women are unsafe in their own homes, one has to raise questions about their safety during deployment where their vulnerability is so much greater.

African conflicts in particular are associated with rape, plunder and murder a reality which women serving in the SANDF will have to face as South Africa takes part in regional peacekeeping. In Africa, with HIV/AIDS infection being as high as 60-70 per cent among some Sub-Saharan armed forces, the deployment of women becomes even more condemning.

Evidence from Rwanda shows how HIV-infected soldiers raped and used HIV as a weapon of war in the ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. Such realities bring to the fore another security dimension associated with the deployment of women on the African continent that stretches way beyond the politics of gender integration associated with western societies. Gender based violence cases in the SANDF are rarely heard and often gone unreported for fear of victimization.

Barriers To Women Advancement

A barrier to women’s advancement refers to attitudes and conditions in the work place that makes it difficult for women to advance.

Patriarchal Society

The patriarchal nature of South African society is the root cause of gender inequality. Therefore to challenge patriarchy and to dispute the idea that men are the only dominant figures in the family and society should not be seen as fighting against male privilege or an attempt to destroy African tradition, subvert Afrikaner ideals or undermine European values. The fact of the matter is that patriarchy dehumanizes men and neutralizes women across the color line.


Owing to socio-cultural factors, stereotyped conceptions of women continue to exist within the DoD. This manifests itself in the form of women not being taken seriously and in sexist jokes or remarks that may be shared in social functions or meetings. True advancement towards equality requires fundamental social and cultural change in interpersonal relationships between women and men, which eliminates practices based on ideas of superiority or inferiority of one sex in relation to the other.


The report on the Qualitative Research Findings of the Study on Gender Equality in the SANDF conducted in 1997 indicates that most women in all rank groups across all arms of service expressed that although they are subjected to the same training with their male counterparts, they do not receive the same recognition. They feel that the work done by women must be seen in the same light as work done by men. Tasks given to women should be on merit and not based on the fact that they are women. Promotion and leadership appointments must be done based on merit


It is recommended that;

  • Recruitment policies and practices in the US military should encourage and ensure the presence of women in all musterings. Quotas must be allocated.

  • During recruitment women who are potential applicants should be notified of real risks which both men and women will face especially in combat role in order to make informed decisions.

  • The SANDF needs to formulate a comprehensive policy on maternity benefits so that these issues are addressed amicably.

  • Gender desks are established across the arms of service in order to promote and monitor gender equality. Yearly gender conferences should also be organized to give feedback on current issues and achievements in terms of policy implementation.

  • The SANDF should encourage and support all women across the race to participate in external deployments.

  • Gender sensitivity education should be included in civic education to address various issues requiring change of attitude from members of the SANDF.

  • An enabling environment and support structures for female soldiers must be developed in order to enable them to combine soldier and mother role.

  • The SANDF should establish a hotline as a corrective measure in order for women to break the silence.

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