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September 21, 2020

Essay : Inclusion of Women in Armed Forces

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Following the appointment of Snit Nirmala Sitharaman as India's full time female Defence Minister on 3 September 2017, and flagging off of India's first all women Navy crew for circumnavigation around the world, the Indian Army announced that it is working on a proposal for inducting women into the military police. The proposal is very significant as, for the first time, women will be inducted in the military's non-officer cadre, albeit in a non-combat role. With an annual intake of 52 personnel, the plan is to induct a total of 800 women for this. Not only this, three women have been inducted into the IAF as fighter pilots and Shubhangi Swaroop has become the first woman to be inducted into the Indian Navy as a pilot. Such efforts on the part of India must inspire the world community about rethinking the role of women in armed forces.

In the 21st century, gender equality is a prominent issue which is getting its due importance. The military has been primarily a masculine institution, where boys become men. The question arises as to why this is not applicable for women. Women's struggle to enter the military is not about seeking special privileges; rather it is about being able to compete on the basis of ability and not to be discriminated against on the basis of gender. It is not about proving that women can do anything that a man can do but about being judged as individuals by the same standards as men in any job for which they can qualify.

Women in the military have a history that extends over 4000 years into the past, across numerous cultures and nations. Throughout history, women have played many such roles from medieval warrior women such as Joan of Arc to the women soldiers of the USA currently serving in conflicts such as the war in Iraq. For the most part, however, the history of women in battle is a combination of myth and exaggeration, mixed with a few true accounts of unique women. Those women who did fight were often forced by circumstances into positions of military leadership or were included only when men were in short supply, as was the case in the Soviet Union during World War II. 

In the present scenario, women are serving in the defence forces of many countries such as The USA, Israel, Canada, Britain, Bulgaria, Germany, India and many more. But women are generally not included in on-field combat roles. They either serve in technical and administrative posts (mostly in medical and educational areas) or sometimes on voluntary basis on the battlefield. Women remain a fringe presence rather than an integral part of the military's image.

The most obvious argument is the fact that women might be weaker physically. Thus, they would not possess the physical attributes suitable to become combat soldiers. The Centre for Military Readiness, an American NGO, stated, "female soldiers are, on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50% less upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance". Contrary to what some seem to believe, technology has not overcome the importance of physical strength in the army. The line soldiers still engage the enemy eyeball-to-eyeball, belly-to-belly. In this setting, women are definitely at a disadvantage. Women were (and are) kept out of the armed forces because of the myth of biology, which gives the argument that women are supposed to be genetically programmed to nurture life and are physically and emotionally not strong enough for combat. Those who believe in this line of thought argue that this division of labour has been biologically determined. However, numerous historical studies have shown this to be untrue. The stereotype blames the woman for her problems, thus avoiding a critique of the system which creates many of the circumstances she finds herself in. 

The disruption of the combat unit's spirit because of low acceptance is cited as another reason for women to be banned from front-line combat situations. The idea is that soldiers would not trust women to perform their duties in a critical situation. Also, in a male dominated society, taking orders from a woman officer may not be acceptable to male soldiers. In addition, a concern is that romantic relationships between men and women belonging to the same unit could disrupt a unit's fighting capacity. Another argument against the inclusion of women in combat units is that placing women in combat would create a risk of them being captured, tortured and possibly sexually assaulted. Also, the women find it difficult to maintain femininity while serving in the military. Marriage and the subsequent birth of their children are major turning points in the careers of service women. Other aspects of service life, that bother women are enforced separation from their families, traditional inflexibility of working hours, excessive regimentation of social life, particularly the evening functions at the messes, which are treated more as a parade with emphasis on dress, time, ban on children, scant regard to late nights etc. 

Two points must be considered before answering the question of whether or not women should be permitted to enter the army. Firstly, the nature of the army as an institution and secondly, the nature of combat itself. If serving in the army was similar to civilian jobs, then yes, women should get equal opportunity in it, as on many occasions women have shown themselves to be at par with men in all areas from law to medicine and in service and business alike. Thus today, a woman who is willing to bear an equal burden to men can achieve whatever goals she desires. Critics of the combat exclusion rule point out that modem combat is technological and 'push-button' and that it does not require the brute strength of the combat soldier of old. There is a lot of truth in this point. However, the fact remains that physical strength and endurance are still the trademark of the effective combat soldier on the ground. Having said that, there is also a growing recognition of the operational effectiveness of women, particularly in peace operations. It is a fact that an increased percentage of female military personnel on UN operations are beneficial to operational effectiveness. A more balanced sex ratio among peacekeepers would reduce the sexual harassment of local women. It has been proven scientifically that women handle stress better and are also mentally tougher than men. India, which has one of the largest armies in the world, has until recently resisted the entry of women in its armed forces. It was in 1992 that India had begun recruiting women to the non-medical positions in the armed forces. More recently, the government took the first steps towards bringing women into fighting roles and also approved air force plans for female pilots to fly warplanes. 

Men were the leaders and women acted as nurturers and followers. That was the way things were, but nothing remains the same forever. Thus, the proper role of women in the army, especially the combat arms, will, of course, continue to be a volatile issue, not only in the army but also in society at large. It is a universally accepted fact that militaries are not created to generate employment and hence have nothing to do with gender equality. The perception of women being the weaker sex, coupled with serious lack of infrastructure, are reasons enough for policy makers across the world to not permit the inclusion of women in combat roles. In such a scenario, the Indian army has set an example by paving the way for the inclusion of more women, but only in non-combat roles. 

Difficult Words with Meanings :
  • Exaggeration - overstatement
  • Fringe - edge, border
  • Endurance - fortitude, patience
  • Disruption - disturbance
  • Volatile - tense, strained 
  • Harassment - intimidation, annoyance
  •  Pave the way - create the circumstances to enable (something) to happen or be done. 
shared by Nisheeta Mirchandani

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