- Forty years after independence, Botswana is ready to recruit its first women soldiers to private and officer ranks, depending on their academic qualifications. "It took 20 years of lobbying, the last bastion is finally down," remarked an elated Ntombi Setshwaelo, spokeswoman for Emang Basadi, a women's rights organisation.
The Botswana Defence Force (BDF), established in 1977, plans to recruit its first women soldiers in March 2007, but those aspiring to a career in uniform should not expect any preferential treatment. "They will follow military standards and be required to walk 100 kilometres in the burning sun with a pack on their back, just as male soldiers do," BDF commander Lt-Gen Tebogo Masire told a recent press conference.
"We are thrilled, but we still have a long way to go in providing equal opportunities to women in Botswana," said Ms Setshwaelo. Despite great strides made since independence in 1966 in opening up previously male-dominated careers in the police force and civil service leadership, recruiting female soldiers into the army was only debated in the Botswana parliament in 2001.
A motion questioning the army's belief that there were no suitable roles for women in its ranks was moved by an opposition Botswana National Front party Member of Parliament, Nehemiah Modubule. It was adopted unanimously, with MPs supporting calls for women to be integrated into the BDF when it joined gender-balanced forces from other countries in international peacekeeping operations.
The BDF aims to increase its visibility in the country's anti-AIDS efforts and regional disaster relief operations, and expand its involvement in peacekeeping operations around the world, giving women an opportunity to serve in a greater variety of non-combatant roles.
Lt-Gen Masire confirmed that there would be no gender prejudice in the predominantly male atmosphere, adding that men would be expected to obey orders wherever female officers were put in charge. The army also promised to maintain strict disciplinary order among troops, including a total ban on sexual relationships between officers and non-commissioned officers.
The Botswana Media Women Association (BOMWA), a female journalists' rights organisation, applauded the move to bridge the gender gap, but warned that successfully integrating women into the army would depend on implementing radical reforms in the internal structure and functioning of the army, as well as in its general mentality.
"BOMWA believes that public opinion [on women's physical fitness for military service] can only change if radical reforms are made that would enable the army to respond to the needs of today's society, rather than cling to previous glory brought forth by men who served in the army in the past."
Young women have responded positively to BDF's decision to open its doors to them. "If the army is ready for us, then we are ready for it. It is high time they ended this discrimination against women. I would like to be one of the first female officers in the BDF," said Motshidisi Tlou, a final-year student at the Botswana College of Agriculture.
"I see women soldiers on television in war zones across the world and wonder why the BDF leadership still believes women in this country cannot make it," said Boitsepo Mosarwe, 20, who is studying environmental management at the University of Botswana. "This is one opportunity I cannot miss."
Botswana and three other countries in the region - South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho - are among the top few African countries that have made significant progress in achieving gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum's 2006 Gender Gap Report, released this week. Botswana was ranked at 36 in the world, just below Belgium and above Israel, said a government statement, a score that also placed it above 13 European Union member states.
Ms Setshwaelo was dismissive of claims that significant strides had been made in closing the gender gap in "positions that matter - decision-making. I can only cite one woman who heads a public-sector company, and another who heads a private-sector company. Only 11 percent of the elected representatives in our parliament are women, when everyone is aware that the SADC [Southern African Development Community] guideline is that at least 30 percent of the elected seats should be occupied by women."
"There is awareness, but there is lack of political will and passion," she added.
Despite the announcement of a date for the first female intake, Lt-Gen Masire said they were yet to determine the number of women recruits and where they would be trained. It would be premature to identify the specific role women would play to improve the operational efficiency of the army, but its internal policing rules would be increased, and anti-crime operations and ridding the country of illegal immigrants remained among its top priorities.
The BDF is part of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of western Sudan, contributes to the SADC peacekeeping initiative, and has successfully hosted major regional military and peacekeeping exercises.
In 1998 Botswana undertook a major external operation when it joined the South African National Defence Force, under the auspices of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, in a controversial intervention in Lesotho after a coup attempt.
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