Australia lifts ban on women in military combat roles

image captionMerit, rather than gender, will determine military roles

Australia has lifted all restrictions on the roles that women can carry out in its armed forces.

Suitably-qualified female soldiers will be able to serve in the special forces and front-line combat units.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the ban would be lifted immediately but may take up to five years to implement. Critics described the move as premature and a gimmick.

Canada, New Zealand and Israel already allow women in all military roles.

Australia's military has about 59,000 full-time members, including 1,500 who are serving in Afghanistan.

Currently women are eligible for about 93% of roles, including artillery duties.

'All equal'

With the lifting of the ban, they will be able to fill the remaining 7%, so long as they are physically and psychologically qualified.

As well as combat roles, they will be eligible to serve in special forces units, if they can meet the entry standards.

Mr Smith said the move is "a logical extension to the very strongly held view in Australian society that all of us are equal irrespective of our backgrounds and irrespective of our sex".

He added: "From this day forward... no combat roles, no front-line 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.

"This is a significant and major cultural change."

Sex scandal

Critics have described the move as "political gimmick".

The head of the Australian Defence Association lobby group, Neil James, said the government was "jumping the gun" on research currently being carried out by defence officials about women's abilities in a military context.

"It doesn't actually give us a lot of confidence that this is anything more than another political gimmick and a distraction," Mr James told ABC radio.

The Australian defence establishment is also currently reviewing sexual abuse within the military after a sex scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

The review received such a high volume of complaints - more than 1,000 allegations of abuse - that it was extended by a month, and is due to report on 30 September.

Investigations began after two cadets from the academy were accused of secretly filming a female cadet having sex and broadcasting it on the internet.

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