BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Dressed in camouflage, Zulma Stefania Perez reflected on her first weeks of training on a military base in the capital — and on her life as one of Colombia’s first female recruits in more than two decades.
“The physical exercises we have to endure are the same” as those for men, she said. “Being a woman doesn’t make us any less capable. In fact, there are many skills and strengths we have that men may not have.
Perez, 24, is part of a cohort of 1,296 women who enlisted in the Colombian military in February, when the South American country opened military service to women for the first time in 25 years.
Colombia has long had conscription for men aged 18 to 24. The military relies heavily on those young recruits to man bases, protect infrastructure and perform administrative duties, while its professional soldiers take on drug trafficking gangs and rebel groups.
This year, officials allowed women in the same age range to volunteer to join the military, in what the military says is part of an effort to “strengthen the role of women” in its ranks.
Recruits must live on military bases for several months and earn a monthly stipend of only about $75, but some of the women in the new program hope it helps them build careers in the armed forces. They see it as an opportunity for a permanent job and training opportunities.
“I like the lessons we get here about human rights and international humanitarian law, because that’s my area of expertise,” says Perez, who studied law but has struggled to find work in the legal profession.
She said that after her basic education, she will probably get a job in the legal affairs department of the army.
First, she must undergo three months of basic training, waking up at 6 a.m. every day and given just one minute to take a cold shower. She has also learned to run while carrying a 7-pound gun.
“The hardest part was adapting to all this exercise,” she said. “As a citizen you live a sedentary lifestyle.”
Others said they decided to join the military because law enforcement runs in their families.
“Ever since I was little I have always wanted to wear this uniform with pride, discipline and honor,” said Yariany Alvarez, a 20-year-old recruit in Bogota who has a police officer uncle.
She said she was not afraid to be a soldier in Colombia, where the military is still struggling to free some of the country’s rural areas from the clutches of drug gangs and rebel groups.
“This is a dangerous job,” she said. “But if we learn our drills and follow instructions, I think we can differentiate ourselves.”
Colombia’s army numbers about 200,000 soldiers. About 1% are women, who have joined so far after attending military colleges or applying for administrative jobs.
Each year, the South American country enlists about 50,000 men into the armed forces for 12 months of compulsory military service.
It’s a practice criticized by human rights activists and some politicians, who complain that most of the recruits are men from low-income urban neighborhoods or rural areas, while wealthier Colombians who graduate from private schools find ways to avoid conscription.
The new push to allow women to enlist comes as the Colombian Congress debates a bill that would abolish compulsory military service and allow young men to replace it with internships in education programs, environmental projects or human rights initiatives.
Military officers in Colombia have opposed this legislation, saying it would reduce the military’s capabilities.