Australia has lifted restrictions preventing women from fighting in front line combat positions and special forces units. Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the ban would be lifted immediately but may take up to five years to implement.
The move means that Australia has lifted all restrictions on the roles that women can carry out in its armed forces. Instead, roles will be filled on merit, rather than gender.
"From this day forward... no combat roles, no frontline role will be excluded from an Australian on the basis of his or her sex, it will be open to anyone to apply on the basis of merit," Stephen Smith announced on Tuesday.
"This is a significant and major cultural change."
However, opponents of the move have derided it a "political gimmick and a discraction." Neil James, head of the Australian Defence Association lobby group, has warned that close quarter combat is too dangerous for women and that they were more likely to be killed in frontline battle than men.
Report; Australia opens frontline combat roles to women(AFP, 27 September 2011)
Report; Australia Says It Will Open Combat Roles to Women (International Herald Tribune, 27 September 2011)
Despite this, commentators have remarked that the changes will have a minimal impact on the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Attitudinally, women are less likely to wish to apply for more risky positions and for biomechanical reasons, are less likely to have the physical strength and endurance pre-requisites, says Dr Rodger Shanahan, Fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy.
Women are already exposed to dangerous situations regardless of their corps, he noted, as there are many other roles which allow women to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The Canadians have had two women killed in action in Afghanistan, neither of whom were infantry. The Danes have lost one female infantry soldier in Afghanistan to an IED strike.
By contrast, neither the UK nor the US allow women to join infantry units and yet in Iraq the UK lost four women to enemy action, and two in Afghanistan. The US lost 30 women in Iraq and three so far in Afghanistan.
The move is therefore more symbolic in granting women formal equality in the Australian military. Although women make up 18.5% of the Defence Force, just 4.5% of senior military ranks are held by females.
The country likely hopes the change will also improve the treatment of women in the military. It comes as Australia military reviews a number of sexual abuse scandals involving women-- the most highly publicised involving the Internet streaming of a female cadet having sex at a top defence academy, allegedly without her knowledge.
In lifting it's ban, Australia becomes one of the few countries in the world to open up its front line positions to women. Other countries which also allow unrestricted female participation in combat based on merit include Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and Israel.
Report; Australia lifts ban on women in military combat roles (BBC News, 27 September 2011)
Analysis; Women in (every) uniform (ABC News, 28 September 2011)