- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

ROME — Recruitment of women in the Italian army has plummeted as male soldiers likened to “molesters in uniform” pester female recruits with salacious messages and requests for sex.

When the nation’s armed forces began admitting women in 2000, about 23,000 women applied to military academies, making up 56 percent of the applicants.

By 2002, however, female applicants represented 21 percent of those seeking admission.

Women seeking to enlist in the Italian military, which traces its roots to the mighty legions of Rome, likewise dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent within three years.

A report in L’Espresso newsmagazine this week blamed unwelcome sexual advances by male soldiers for the decline in the number of women interested in military life.

The weekly cited the example of a woman serving at a barracks in northern Italy whose superior officer fired off text messages to her such as: “I can’t sleep for thinking about you,” “You excite me very much,” and “Would you come on a cruise with me?”

When the woman failed to reply, the officer sent her an unchivalrous message with a one-word sexually explicit epithet.

Another female soldier found herself alone with her commanding officer in his office. “Without warning he lowered his trousers, showing her his boxer shorts,” L’Espresso said.

A short time later, the same officer stunned two female soldiers by recounting how both he and his wife shaved their private parts. “We like it that way,” he added.

The women were not amused and filed a formal complaint. The officer denied the charges, saying they were invented as a vendetta by women who received mediocre marks in training.

“There has been too much silence on sexual molesters, but the military and civil courts are beginning to work,” the magazine said.

Not all the disenchantment with Italian military life is caused by sexual harassment. Carla, 27, quit an officers training course and went back to working in the bar her parents own near Verona.

“It was traumatic when they cut my hair as short as a boy’s. I imagined this adventure would be easier, but after a year of officers training I was in crisis. There was too much discipline; one had to study such a lot and above all there was too much punishment. I thought I was tough but I found myself crying often. So one fine day I packed my bags and left,” Carla said.

Another female recruit stayed in the army but confided to L’Espresso that she lives in fear of peacekeeping duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. “When I applied I never thought one day I might really have to fight.”

Italian Defense Ministry officials play down the significance of the decline in women’s applications to join. “These are figures we expected after the boom of applications in the first competitions open to women linked to a novelty effect,” a ministry source said.

In all, 1,736 women are serving in the Italian army, navy, air force and Carabinieri paramilitary police.

Their arrival also led some male soldiers to complain of discrimination, L’Espresso reported.

A regiment based in Piceno said relations with female soldiers were complicated.

“The officers punish the men and offer the women coffee. If it rains, outdoor exercises are canceled to avoid complications for the girls. Men are transferred out of units by overzealous superiors to avoid embarrassing situations,” the magazine quoted one soldier as saying.

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