Support for women in armed services needs to be a priority, advocates say
Serving in the defence force is a life-changing commitment but former and current servicewomen unsurprisingly face different hurdles to those of their male counterparts.
There are numerous networks across Australia that offer specialised support for veterans including the RSL subbranches but often women are looking something more specific.
In the western suburbs of Sydney, where a large proportion of retired service people live, the Penrith the Women’s Veterans Network (WVN) is working to support all current and former servicewomen during their time in the defence forces and in the ongoing years after they leave.
Del Gaudry, who is still serving as a reservist after joining of the RAAF over 40 years ago and currently as WVN Coordinator for Western Sydney, says the organisation aims to promote and support women in and out of all of the Australian Defence Force, no matter what role they play.
“We offer a peer support network to help women transition from the defence force into civilian life,” Ms Gaudry said.
“There is such a range in age groups involved and it is about helping to pull up the women who are coming through and also support women who have served in the defence force.”
Launching two years ago, the WVN Australia is a response to the predominately male run and organised RSL subbranches that operate across Australia.
These subbranches are usually responsible for organising Remembrance and Anzac Day commemorations through your local RSL Club Limited.
“Most of the RSL subbranches are run by men. Some are getting better at hearing women and including them in decision making processes,” Ms Gaudry said.“Men talk about mateship but women talk about friendship in support groups. It is about talking about and understand the things they’ve gone through,” she said.
In the west, about 15 minutes drive from Penrith is the town of St Marys.
St Marys was a town that lived off the work provided by the nearby munitions factories throughout World War Two. It is a suburb with weathered fibro-cottages built for the families of returned servicemen and the workers of the munitions factories.
The local St Marys RSL subbranch put on a very special dawn service in 2018 which will feature a feminine touch and a diverse atmosphere because they will consciously acknowledge the work of women in times of war and conflict.
Across the dawn service ceremony there will be a large female cohort laying wreaths, as representatives of local groups, and reciting poems and prayers across the event.
Tony Fryer, Honorary Secretary of the St Marys RSL subbranch, said it is important to show “societal changes” at significant time in the Australian calendar, particularly on Anzac Day.
“We want to do a traditional service with some modern changes to reflect the societal changes within Australia,” Mr Fryer said.
“We want to include as many people in our event as we can because at the end of the day Australia has a diverse military background.”
In addition to the large female representation there will be a special speech delivered by Major Jaymi Matthews, a local from the St Marys area. Maj. Matthews was one of the first in her Corps to be on active frontline duty in an overseas conflict.
Mr Fryer said it was fair to say that the team at the St Marys RSL subbranch are particularly proud of her.
Throughout the dawn service there will be subtle yet poignant references to the By The Left campaign, an Australian led initiative that aims to broaden the public’s perception of veterans to include the women who fought on battlefield and served in our defence forces.
“By the Left is an education program to make Australians aware that women have earned the right to display their own justly awarded medals in pride of place on the left chest,” Mr Fryer said.
He said sadly there are still people, the majority of those men, who still discriminate against women for wearing their own medals on the left side of their chest.
“Unfortunately, some people in our society haven’t caught up with all this and for them, they think that such women are not entitled to wear the medals; that they must be wearing their Dad’s or brother’s or husband’s medals. On occasion, some people have been very unkind to these women with such false accusations,” Mr Fryer said.
“So, if you see a lady wearing medals on the left, be assured she has done good service for your country,” he said.
Currently there are around a dozen female members of the St Marys RSL subbranch who have served in the Australian defence force. That number is expected to grow over the coming years because of the increased number of women who have served in contemporary war zones.
Mr Fryer said today more than ever there are more women serving on the frontline than in any other point in history.
In the defence force men and women are put through the same physical training, the same regimentation and the same psychological conditioning. Though men and women go through the same training, and they’re often deployed into the same war zones, there is still a difference in the types of experiences men and women undergo in the defence force.
“Women have different experiences of war and deployment. People question women more than they question men about their reasons for undertaking deployment,” Ms Gaudry said.
“The public can judge a women who deploys differently because according to some, women should be at home with their families and children”
Currently the rough number of women employed in the airforce make up about 20 percent of the current serving personnel. In the army it is far fewer with around 12 percent.
Leaving the defence force and returning to civilian life can also bring different challenges to a woman.According to Ms Gaudry, women may be less likely to make claims the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) than men do because of the personal nature of making a claim.
“Women have to recount stories to men about what they’ve been through and it can be hard sometimes to talk about personal women’s issues to someone who is a stranger,” Ms Gaudry said.
“It’s important to remember that more than 11,000 veterans with one or more accepted conditions under any Act administered by DVA are female.”
In the last few years the DVA has significantly improved services for contemporary veterans, including female veterans, according to Ms Gaudry.
DVA and defence services have recognised that female veterans have unique requirements and so have established an ADF Service Women Steering Committee to inform both departments of the specific needs of women.
Originally published for The QUO.