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Sunday, 28 May, 2000, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Battle for equality

Women already serve on the frontline in the US army
In its heavily fictionalised account of one woman's struggle to reach the US military's front line, the 1997 film GI Jane saw Demi Moore do battle with prejudice in order to qualify for dangerous combat.

Now the British military is aiming to follow in her footsteps by re-writing its traditional codes of conflict to push women to the Army's driving edge.

Demi Moore's GI Jane struggled to the frontline
Until now, the MoD has been reluctant to adapt any further, preferring not to alter what it sees as the male-dominated status quo within the military.

The government has, by law, retained the right to exclude women soldiers from units like the Royal Marines which are likely to be involved in combat at close quarters.

They have been banned from front line infantry and tank units. In the Navy they are barred from submarines and in the RAF they cannot join the RAF Regiment, the army style unit which guards airbases.

The line toed by the MoD was once rigidly linked to the principle that all Marines, including cooks, were expected to be capable of killing with bayonets.

Front line units were to be kept as single-sex for reasons of comradeship, loyalty and shared training.

Other objections have included the belief that the British public would be unable to accept large casualties among women soldiers.

Battle situations

Despite this, women have for several years been serving in the Royal Engineers as mine clearers and combat engineers - often the most exposed soldiers in a combat zone.

As part of moves to enhance equal opportunities in the armed forces, tests later this year will try to establish how women perform alongside men in potential battle situations.

Despite dual gender policies in the armed forces of the US, Canada, Holland, Norway and Israel, the British Army has previously dismissed women as unable to cope with the heavy physical demands of front line fighting, and maintained the view that mixed gender armoured units were impractical.

In theory, women are already permitted to enter high risk combat roles through qualification by so-called "gender-free" testing.

However the tests, which focus on physical endurance, have often proved more of a barrier than a gateway for female recruits.

Fitness requirements, set by male performance levels, have included eight mile marches carrying a 50lb pack and the ability to lift and move a 90lb ammunition box for 20 minutes.

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