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Army women shake-up BDF

Since inception in 1977, the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) has been a males-only-club. That was up until in 2007, when women were introduced and reintegrated into the army. While the move to un-gender the BDF has been hailed as the best thing that ever happened to the army, the reality is that the move has also brought with it the greatest challenges within our small force, Staff Writer TEFO PHEAGE reports

It was the retired Commander, Tebogo Masire who took a bold decision nine years ago to introduce women into the army following persistent and perennial calls by some legislators and commentators. In a small and young defence force like Botswana’s, women only make about less than 10% and rank from as high as position Captain to the lowest rank of Private.

In a patriarchal society like ours, women have often fallen victim to marginalisation, inequality, abuse, and are portrayed as second-class citizens by the social and political systems of their own countries and army women in Botswana are not an exception.

In various random interviews with Mmegi, a sizable number of BDF servicewomen from various ranks expressed contentment of the army lifestyle but pointed out a few reservations.

From the covert and un-attributable interviews for fear of reprisal, army women thanked their male counterparts for a warm welcome but said the only thing that makes life difficult within the barracks is the confusing fraternisation policy, having to decline seniors' advancements and proposals as well as a non-performance-based promotion system which they say stifles women representation in higher decision-making ranks. This they say, as shown on different occasions means that women’s development and interests will always remain at the backseat within the BDF.

South Africa, which has been recruiting female troops since it started restructuring its security forces in the mid-1990s, has recently increased its quota to almost 50 per cent. After a ‘gender mainstreaming’ audit highlighted shortcomings at the command levels of the South African National Defence Force, eight female brigadier generals were appointed in 2007. The BDF service women occupy only four ranks from Private, 2nd lieutenant, Lieutenant and Captain - a clear six long, hard-to-earn and courses-based stages away from the top post. Without hard work and long-service, servicewomen will have to rely on a miracle to reach the decision-making stages to have their voices heard.


Sexual abuses and the Chain of Command

Extensive evidence shows that sexual violence against women is a pervasive problem within the BDF as is with many other militaries. Despite this, only a small fraction of cases are reported by those who dare to ignore the ‘don’t rock the boat’ culture of the military, leaving the rest pushed to and beyond the limits of their substantial emotional and physical resilience.

Servicewomen are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to geographical isolation from family and friends, and the potential for social isolation within the military culture.  But why is it difficult to bring the perpetrators to book? The army is run by what is known as the chain of command and many ascribe rampant sexual abuse of servicewomen to this hierarchical system of reporting. The system means that a victim’s commanding officer can temper with justice at any stage by diverting and stopping an investigation, reducing a sentence or even setting aside a conviction. Since the introduction of women in the army across the world, statistics show that the greatest wars for army women are not fought outside the barracks with enemies but within, with fellow servicemen.

Official department of Defence figures in the US, the most transparent army in the world, show that out of 3,158 reported sexual assault cases in 2010, only 21% went to trial. Of those, only half were convicted. The stats paint a shocking picture of an extensive and stubborn cover-up culture in the military.

Although the figures are not as clear as in the US, in the UK, 2014 armed forces attitude survey showed one in 10 respondents had reported discrimination, harassment or bullying. The UK media is replete with several high profile cases of sexual innuendos involving powerless female officers and their omnipotent male seniors. Botswana‘s army structures and cultures are largely inspired by these two great forces who have been by our side since BDF establishment taking us through baby steps. In fact, the BDF from the beginning adopted many customs, traditions, and largely, an Act that is similar to the British, The Queens Regulations - British Armed Forces.

While many may wonder what these form of abuses breed, studies have found that military sexual assault contributes more strongly to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat-related stress, and that those assaulted sexually suffer more PTSD than those with other trauma.

But what can be done to shield the vulnerable servicewomen against their dominant males?

All over the world armies have what is called fraternisation policy. Fraternisation in the military relates to prohibited personal relationships between military service members of different ranks and positions. It involves improper relationships, ranging from overly casual relationships to friendships to romantic relationships. When fraternisation occurs between officers and enlisted service members or between some other hierarchical pairing, as between a commander and an officer or enlisted soldier in her command, it can potentially undermine the chain of command, order, and discipline. Most armies have however relegated these policy documents to the dusty shelves.  In the UK, Labour MP Madeleine Moon is calling for an armed forces ombudsman to adjudicate on internal complaints, so an impartial figure can deal with sexual abuses, harassment and rape cases. This however is yet to happen. Other advocates and analysts propose that sexual assault allegations be removed from the chain of command to ensure investigations and trials are conducted fairly. England and Canada have already done so in their militaries.

Former legislator, Tebelelo Seretse who is credited for her passionate and tireless advocacy for women enrolment in her days as a legislator told Mmegi in a brief interview that while the BDF is a force in transit, a lot needs to be done to empower women in the army.  “The BDF must not bask on the this greatest achievement to enroll women and neglect their progress and development. For a democracy that we are, we also believe in participatory democracy, while an army is naturally not a democracy, my view is that we need women in higher decision-making positions in the army to neutralise their male counterparts and represent themselves,” she said.

She continued: “Women have the potential and should be reflected in the army’s top hierarchy to show that they have indeed been enrolled. We cannot just have them there, they need to have a say and partake in the direction that the BDF takes rather than being consumers of male-dominated commands,” she said further adding that perhaps we need affirmative action to elevate them to distant ranks.


BDF hints on soldier’s hook-up tricks

The higher male to female ratios in the BDF as well as the fraternisation rules heaps stress of social isolation for females. This pressure and isolation overwhelm female soldiers and cause them to become involved with males of higher rank.

This is acerbated by the fact that BDF is a small army with limited resources having resorted to rely on integrated training due to the unaffordable costs of separation.

A source within the army says forget fraternisation policies, the reality is that just as people elsewhere can date amongst themselves at work, the BDF is not an exception. The only difference is that soldiers do it in a smart way.

In his thesis, titled ‘Expanding the shield and facing the challenges: integration of women in BDF,’ the creator of the BDF’s fraternisation policy, Major General Mpho Mophuting warns that servicewomen can get lonely in a new place with no friends and no family, and you may find that the enlisted crewmen are

the only ones around in your spare time.

“When you’re in a situation like this, it’s hard to understand why you shouldn’t get too friendly with crewmen. Or perhaps you understand, but your own mental well-being you feel you have to make friends with someone,” he says.

Technically, fraternisation, he adds, refers to senior-subordinate relationship, but generally, it is viewed as involving male-female relationships. Service members, he admits, find fraternisation policies confusing and often misunderstand them.

The BDF ‘s women policy document on fraternisation warns on tactics often employed by soldiers to lure others to bed and warns on that. In listing types of the tricks often employed by the army servicemen and women in luring their counterparts to bed, the army policy document says that is often done through verbal, non-verbal and physical contact.

On verbal tactics, the BDF says it is often through “telling sexual jokes, using sexually explicit profanity, threats, sexually oriented Jody calls, sexual comments, whistling in a sexually suggestive manner, describing certain sexual attributes about one’s physical appearance.”

On non-verbal cues, the BDF says it can be “by staring at someone and undressing them with one’s eyes, blowing kisses, winking or licking one’s lips in suggestive manner”.

On physical contact, the BDF warns that touching, patting, pinching, bumping, grabbing, cornering or blocking a passageway, kissing, providing unsolicited back or neck rub and sexual assault or rape will not be tolerated.


Inside the BDF’s despised fraternisation policy document

The BDF ‘women’ policy on Fraternisation is titled ‘policy on standards for women in the BDF’ and was created in 2008 in haste following the first batch of cadets who were trained in Tanzania. It is the brainchild of two army heavyweights, Brigadier M. Alidi and Major General Mophuting following a benchmarking trip in Kenya at a force founded 14 years before ours.  Interestingly, Major General Mophuting will a few months later be charged on offending the same policy he has created after he was charged over dating an officer cadet, a charge that almost cost him his job.

Eight years in existence, the policy has already endured a few heavy blows not only from lawyers but insiders who are responsible for applying it. Its implementers are not happy at ‘the shallow work’ done by Brigadier Alidi and Major General Mophuting, as the policy lacks several basic policy components.

While the policy purports to be trying all the army offenders across all ranks, non in the Court Martial is above the rank of Major.  This means that juniors have been tasked to try their seniors- a no-go area for any junior if you ask anybody accustomed to the military customs. This therefore not only makes establishment as a kangaroo court but also makes it prone to miscarriage of justice.

The said policy in conclusion directs commanders to make sure that fraternisation does not take place ‘through aggressive and progressive proper training once each year’.

This according to the document “will help soldiers to understand sexual harassment, how to recognise it, how to prevent it, how to report it and the consequences of engaging in it”.

Sources however say that no training to this effect has taken place and the issue has been left to the servicemen and women‘s conscience.

The policy document which is riddled with the word-relationship does not at any point define what a relationship is.

While the said policy document in conclusion expressly states that ‘violation of this policy shall constitute an offence under the BDF Act’, lawyers argue that Section 65 of the BDF Act, does not anywhere recognise the policy. They further argue that it has not gone through known policy statutes but remains thetwo men’s opinions. The BDF is currently reviewing the Act to make it all encompassing.

In its effort to protect women, the policy document urges women to directly confront the harasser and tell them off and warn them, write a letter to the harasser shunning the approach, use common courtesy, indirect approach through a third party or follow the chain of command. At the recent graduation ceremony of the female group, the immediate past commander, General Galebotswe promised servicewomen that the BDF will do all it can to protect them despite limited resources.

“You have female officers to call upon in case of this challenge - fraternisation. We will also as leadership provide a conducive environment to empower you to successfully prepare yourselves against this matter. You will be deployed in teams so that you have each other’s counsel and support,” he said. The Commander further promised servicewomen that their regime commanders will be the ones playing the role before anybody.


The life and challenges of women in the BDF

According to the BDF Act, any person subject to this Act who-lends money to any person senior to him in rank or borrows money from or accepts any present from any person junior to him in rank shall, on conviction by Court Martial or by the High Court, be liable to imprisonment for two years or any less punishment provided by this Act.

A dismissed BDF couple is currently challenging their dismissal on the basis that the act does not recommend dismissals. According to the creator of the women-fraternisation policy, Mophuting, the BDF Act demonstrates that fraternisation is a gender- neutral concept that has been in existence since the inception of the BDF, albeit the introduction of women in the BDF and will compel the command to make a gender encompassing policy.

“Since the BDF is a small force and is currently experiencing various financial constraints men and women are likely to find themselves in awkward situations like sharing accommodation not necessarily preferred by the BDF,” he says. When economic constraints strikes, the army can place senior and junior members in close proximity with one another, such as combined ranks or joint use of officers’ clubs, joint recreational facilities or mixed officer/enlisted housing areas.

He hints on several sobering questions - what effects do policies regarding the assignment of women have upon military families, children, and the society? Should serviceman husband and servicewoman wife be stationed together? Who looks after the children when both parents are deployed, or when the father or mother is a single parent?

How much does having a husband and family hinder a servicewoman’s career or vice versa? These are the kinds of questions that the BDF will have to struggle with when it decides on sound parental and family policies. According to him, “it is important that the BDF develop an accommodating policy that will allow women to lead a normal life as well as effectively perform the tasks required of them.”

In response to Mmegi, the BDF director of protocol and public affairs Tebo Dikole declined to shed light on the number of fraternisation charges within the army safe to say “disciplinary issues pertaining to service members are confidential, solely internal and administrative and therefore cannot be shared with third parties”.

 On whether there was ever anything done to prepare the army prior to the introduction of women in the BDF, he said “prior to the introduction of uniformed female members in the BDF, a thorough feasibility study was conducted to facilitate for the introduction of female soldiers in the files and ranks of the BDF”. According to him the BDF has deliberate programmes aimed at promoting gender issues in line with military traditions, policies and best practices, which among other issues does not condone fraternisation.




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