by David Grainger

special provision was made for the recruitment of women into the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) when the Defence Ordinance was passed by the National Assembly in May 1966 although it is true that, during the debate on the Defence Bill, PNC spokesmen did promise that women would be enlisted into the new Force.

No attempt to do so was made for the remainder of 1966, the year when the GDF came into existence, however, and, given the PNC's domination of the policy-making Guyana Defence Board (GDB) from the start, the delay in recruiting women into the Force and the alleged resistance to their employment were surprising. More odd was Prime Minister Forbes Burnham's belated complaint about this apparent controversy Ambiguity and ambivalence have afflicted official policy towards women soldiers since the establishment of the Women Army Corps (WAC) 35 years ago. All earlier military forces in Guyana-such as the British Guiana Militia and the British Guiana Volunteer Force-were exclusively male and, inevitably, the tradition of treating the military profession as a male preserve was deep-rooted.

Policy Drift:
which came to light only in 1977, ten years after the WAC was formed. Burnham said: "I recall that when we first recruited women into the Guyana Defence Force, the then Chief-of-Staff [Col Ronald Pope] thought that women should be allocated to secretarial duties and telephone operating. I gave an instruction then and I hope that that instruction has been carried out. Though perhaps women should get first choice on secretarial and telephone duties, they must understand that they are soldiers and the price ... which they pay for equality and being in the Guyana Defence Force must be their ability to do anything the men can do as well, if not better." The question as to exactly what women soldiers were meant to do and whether, indeed, they should be able 'to do anything the men can do' has plagued official policy to this day, creating a crisis of identity for military planners.

The establishment of the GDF's Women's Army Corps (WAC) which turns 35 on 6 February 2002, arguably, was a direct result of Venezuela's seizure of Ankoko Is. in the Cuyuni River in October 1966. In that year of Guyana's Independence, the GDF had barely established its first battalion of fewer than 500 men when it was forced to deploy troops to Eteringbang on the country's westernmost frontier to confront Venezuela's aggression. The sudden removal of such a large number of men from such a small force, some mere recruits still undergoing basic training, others deployed along the coastland which only two years earlier had been the scene of murderous ethnic strife, created huge manpower problems. Soldiers had to be found quickly to secure the borders and others had to take their place in the camps. The GDF's solution was to recruit women.

In 30 January 1967, just three months after the Ankoko incident, four women-Captain Joan Granger and Officer Cadets Brenda Aaron, Clarissa Hookumchand and Hyacinth King - started training at the GDF Training Wing at what was then called Atkinson Field, now Timehri. On 6 February, 56 other women joined them as recruits. After six weeks of training in drill, fieldcraft, skill-at-arms, shooting and physical fitness, the 60 were formally inducted into the GDF at a parade on 12 March inspected by Mrs. Winifred Gaskin, then Minister of Education (see image below). Starting with a strength of 60 in 1967, the Women's Army Corps reached its greatest strength of 268 in 1977. It fell to 247 in 1987 and thereafter, declined slowly. There were 190 women soldiers serving in the GDF in 1997 and 260 at the start of 2002.

There is some evidence to support the charge that the idea of recruiting women into the Force was resisted, despite the growing demand for more troops to meet the country's defence needs. In fact, the day after their proud "passing out parade," the women were all sent back home. Thereafter, they were to be called up only when required, as in any military reserve.

Initially, women soldiers were required to enlist in the 2nd battalion-the GDF's reserve - only for three years and training was geared to prepare them for their "specific role" in the Force. The age requirement of women was 18 to 25 years but, in exceptional cases, women over 25 years with specialist qualifications were considered. Women were paid, trained and treated as temporary reservists who could be `disembodied', or have their full-time service stopped at any time if their post became redundant or they ceased to fulfill employment standards. Indeed, the official role of the WAC was stated clearly: "To provide a body of trained officers and women to be a ready reserve in any type of emergency, and to reinforce the regular element and replace men in non-combatant duties."

Eventually, a few women were 'embodied' into the Force, not as a group, but as individuals, and were destined to become auxiliaries to male soldiers filling posts as clerks, cooks, typists, nurses, radio and telephone operators, and storekeepers - in camps and bases. This pattern continued until 1969 when the majority of these female reservists were transferred to the regular force. Recruitment policy changed mainly because Guyana's defence situation continued to deteriorate. After the Rupununi insurrection of January 1969, more male troops had to be deployed to that part of the Guyana-Brazil border and, in August 1969, another major military operation against the Surinamese incursion in the New River obliged the GDF to station troops on that sector of the Guyana-Suriname border as well. The continuous drain of trained troops was unsustainable without replacements. On 26 September 1969, only one month after the Surinamese problem, the second batch of women soldiers joined the GDF and, from that time, they were given combat training.

Access: The change of official policy was accelerated also by the declaration of 1975 as the 'International Year of Women' by the United Nations and may have been driven by the rapid rise of feminist groups and the introduction of gender issues into the public debate. These factors influenced the PNC Administration to adopt a more enlightened approach to women's issues, a policy which had an effect on the WAC. The State Paper on Equality for Women was presented to the National Assembly on 15 January 1976, aimed, among other things, at: "... securing equality of treatment by employers of men and women workers as regards terms and conditions of service and generally for the purpose of making sex discrimination unlawful in employment, recruitment, training, education and the provision of housing, goods, services and facilities to the public." The new politically-driven approach sought to grant women access to equitable training and employment in the GDF as well. Already in January 1975, at the start of "International Women's Year," Cheryl Pickering and Beverly Drakes were enrolled at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, USA, returning to Guyana the following year with commercial pilot's certificates to join the GDF Air Corps. In 1977, Barbara Adams became the country's first female helicopter pilot after graduating from the Oxford Air Training School in the UK with a commercial helicopter pilot's certificate.

Other women were sent on similar courses, some failing to qualify but, within a decade of this bold initiative, the experiment slowed to a trickle. The reason for this, occurring in the depressed decade of the 1980s, may have been primarily financial, but it was remarkable that, despite their experience, training and qualifications, women pilots were rarely, if ever, allowed to fly 'in command' of military aircraft.

a few officers were given the opportunity to attend "attachments" and "on the job training" overseas. For example, Michalene Payne was trained at the British Army Public Relations Department; Joan Granger was trained at the Army School of Catering, and Brenda Aaron at the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), all in the UK. The doors to regular officer training in Guyana were opened on 16 May 1976 when eight women - four civilians and four soldiers - were admitted to the Standard Officers Course (SOC) which all cadets must complete before being commissioned as officers.
Access to the most advanced staff training in countries such as Brazil, Canada, India, the UK and USA where senior officers were prepared for high command, however, seemed closed to women. On the other hand, women have been pursuing advanced studies at the University of Guyana and have attended overseas courses in regional and hemispheric studies, disaster preparedness, intelligence and peacekeeping. As a result, it seemed that a 'glass ceiling' was imperceptibly drawn over the heads of women. In 35 years, only three women have reached the rank of lieutenant colonel and only one has reached the rank of Warrant Officer Class I, the highest enlisted rank.

Although they continued to fill mainly traditional positions, women were given access in increasing numbers to other trades as artisans, cartographers, drivers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, painters, plumbers, radio operators and tailors. Women soldiers also mounted a ceremonial guard of honour for Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka during her state visit to Guyana, enjoying the privilege of that most sacred military ritual of carrying the Force "colour" on parade. 'All women' detachments also participated in the ceremonial 'Changing of the Guard' at Guyana House - the President's residence - and Remembrance Day parades. These novelties had spectacular, but superficial, effects and did not address the core question of women's long-term role in the Force. To be fair, few countries have satisfactorily achieved a good balance between the military roles of men and women. Frequently, employment could be determined as much by operational necessity as by the desire to avoid sexual scandals arising out of harassment, or exploitation arising out of inequalities in rank.

during "International Women's Year" also, the Administration announced the establishment of an 'operational unit' with the aim to deploy women soldiers to hinterland areas to be involved in "defence and development duties." According to Beverly Daw, writing in the Guyana Graphic newspaper, 19 women non-commissioned officers were trained, six of whom were posted to the GDF Training Corps to train special recruits for proposed unit in "skill-at-arms; jungle warfare; navigation and all the other necessary aspects of security work they will be expected to perform."

This unit never materialized, however, and must have been regarded as impractical, despite the political hype in which it was conceived. Women did participate in rugged field tactical exercises at the Force's battle school at Tacama and in other training areas but were never to be deployed on 'combat' or operational missions. After making a comparative analysis of experiments in introducing women to combat assignments in Canada, Israel and the USA, Christine King, in an article entitled 'Women in Combat', concluded that the GDF was "not sufficiently experienced nor is it fully equipped to enlist women for combat" and, despite the enthusiasm of a few, she did not support the idea for the GDF. She pointed to the resistance, even by women, to the Canadian Armed Forces' attempt in their 1980s Combat-Related Employment of Women (CREW) trials, to integrate women fully into combat units.

In Guyana, resistance to proposals for a combat role for women came both from the women themselves and men. On the one hand, many women soldiers were mothers and all liable to suffer as much from the stress of being separated from their young children as from the discomfort of lengthy periods of exposure to field operations and conditions. On the other hand, men, particularly commanders, were apprehensive of the social and administrative problems which could arise when males and females were kept together in the field, away from their homes and families. In a survey entitled, "Women Soldiers of the Guyana Defence Force and their Effect on the Military Organisation in Terms of Roles," which studied the attitudes of men to women soldiers, Brenda Aaron found that 76 per cent of men felt that the presence of women soldiers created specific problems for the GDF administration in four major areas: fitness for the primary task of soldiering; pregnancy, children and the home; transitional period from civilian to military occupation and women's intimate relations with male superiors.
Women sometimes combine the roles of soldier, wife, mother and, usually, homemaker and householder. Domestic problems often erupt which conflict with their occupational obligations and, consequently, have to be dealt with by the GDF administration. As a result, Aaron found, some male soldiers are skeptical about the presence of women in the Force because they felt that women's problems created increased organisational strains, making the men's burden heavier. These issues seemed to be insoluble, the GDF largely skirting around the debate and contenting itself with simply employing women to perform their traditional trades. This course of action avoids unpleasantness and achieves the aim of freeing men to perform operational tasks.


                                                   Women's Army Corps in 1967.

Problem: despite the claim that it was always part of the plan to enlist women into the GDF on the basis of equality with men, the regulatory framework for protecting women from abuse, and for ensuring good order and military discipline, has been inadequate. This came about, perhaps, because some types of social problems could not have been anticipated and a misplaced belief in absolute egalitarianism obviated the need to promulgate separate regulations for men and women.

As time went by, it was revealed in a survey cited by Christine King that 75 per cent of female soldiers had one or two children, and some others had more. In response to that reality in the early years of the WAC, women were simply "disembodied" if it was felt that pregnancy or motherhood was interfering with their performance of duty. But this was quickly found to be both an unreasonable and uneconomical method of managing skilled soldiers. It was later to become unlawful as well. As a result, a sort of 'family code' was drafted, aimed mainly at the 'pregnancy problem'.
Regulations governing pregnancy stipulate that women soldiers may allow themselves to become pregnant for the first time only after two years of service and, thereafter, only once every two years and no more than a maximum of three times during their military service.

Once their pregnancy is certified by the GDF Medical Officer, women soldiers are exempted strenuous physical exercise but are required to perform routine duties. Maternity leave commences six weeks prior to the expected date of confinement, soldiers being allowed a period of 13 weeks maternity leave with pay in accordance with National Insurance Scheme (NIS) conditions.

It is presumed that other aspects of sexual relations likely to have disruptive effects on GDF administration were thoroughly investigated but were left unregulated. Problems must have arisen, for example, in cases where women had to be stationed away from their children; where spouses were separated or were liable to serve in the same unit; where children had to be maintained; where there were sexual relations between soldiers or officers of different ranks; and where there was sexual and spousal abuse.

As a result, a Welfare Department was established through which trained social workers attempted to deal with these family matters, supporting the new legal regime guaranteeing women's equality. The staff of this Department would pay visits to homes and hospitals, investigate cases and make recommendations to commanding officers for corrective action.

Identity: apart from the establishment of a Welfare Department, several other efforts were made to soften the harshness of military service for women. A choir was formed, performing at various functions and institutions such as hospitals; special sports such as hockey and netball were introduced; a Co-operative Credit Union was established to encourage thrift and the WAC was affiliated to the Conference on the Affairs and Status of Women, in Guyana (CASWIG).

At one stage, in October 1976, perhaps as a result of overzealous egalitarianism, the WAC was actually disbanded and women formerly called "WACs" now had to be formally referred to as 'female soldiers'. The original title was restored when it was found that, despite the fact that the women could not function as single military corps, there were good reasons for them to be treated 'differently' and for a commanding officer of their own.

Today, women can be found in almost every Corps (i.e., specialized branch) of the Force but, nevertheless, are treated collectively as members of the Women's Army Corps only for administrative purposes such as accommodation, social events and training exercises. As a result, the WAC now possesses its own emblem (the Victoria Regia Lily with crossed rifles), flag (the emblem on a mauve background), and Regimental march. The Corps celebrates its formation day on 6 February every year.
In theory, women in the GDF enjoy equal status to men: they compete with them in training and, within their respective corps for promotion. They suffer similar sanctions when they commit offences; receive equal pay within their ranks; undergo similar training, and benefit from all the privileges of military life as do the male soldiers. The underlying belief is that, given the opportunity to be properly trained, women can carry out almost any function that is required of men.

Despite Forbes Burnham's bravado, however, the concept of "women in combat" never took root. By and large, women seem satisfied with their identity as soldiers within the stated parameters and have settled into traditional employment.
Thirty-five years after the WAC was established, there is unlikely to be a surge of enthusiasm for sudden change.

[Editor's Note:
This article has used information from various articles; Brenda Aaron, "The Women's Army Corps." Scarlet Beret, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1971), and "Women Soldiers of the Guyana Defence Force," Mimeo. University of Guyana, Guyana, 1978. Christine King, "Women in Combat." Scarlet Beret, Vol. 1, No. 5 (December 1998); Gwen Fredericks, "Role of the Female Soldiers." Scarlet Beret, Vol. 1, No. 4 (February 1977); Beverly Daw, "Women's Army Corps Operational Unit," Guyana Graphic, 29 October 1975. Michalene Payne, "Equality as it Relates to the Army," Scarlet Beret, Vol. 1, No. 4 (February 1977); Green Beret, January 1992.]
eprinted from
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