Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts

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    AJSINGH Senior Member Senior Member

    Aug 28, 2009
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    Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts

    Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD

    (Indian Defence Review Jan-Mar 2010)

    The recent debate about the induction of women in the armed
    forces has been highly skewed and shallow. An issue that
    critically affects the fighting potential of the armed forces has
    been reduced to ‘equality of sexes’ and‘women’s liberation’. Many
    ill-informed observers have trifled such a sensitive matter by terming
    it as ‘conquering the last male bastion’. Sadly, stances have been
    taken more on the basis of personal views and mind-sets rather than
    on well evolved logic. Both military and
    non-military experts are equally guilty in this regard. In the
    recent past, the nation was shocked to hear a retired senior Army
    officer recommending constitution of all women battalions in the
    Indian Army. There cannot be a more preposterous and perilous
    proposition. It is equally common t to hear the argument that if the
    Naxalites and LTTE can have women fighters, why the Indian armed
    forces should be reluctant to do so. Often
    people quote the number of American women fighting war in
    Iraq and Afghanistan to question India’s stance against
    allowing women in combat. This article endeavours to remove
    some common misconceptions and put all issues in their
    proper perspective.

    To start with, it needs to be stressed that the services
    carry no male chauvinistic mindset. The very fact that
    daughters of service officers have excelled in all fields
    proves that service officers do not suffer from any gender
    bias and are very supportive of women’s advancement.
    However, the issue of women’s induction in the services
    warrants singular treatment.

    It will be instructive to take a look at the genesis of the
    issue. Earlier, entry of women was limited to the Army
    Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and the Military
    Nursing Service. In the early 90s, a service Chief visited
    the United States and saw women participating in Guards of
    Honour. He was suitably
    impressed and wondered why India should lag behind in this
    aspect. Thus the decision to induct women was neither
    need-based nor well thought-through. The first batch of
    women Short Service Commission (SSC) officers joined in
    1992. No attempt was made to study likely long term
    implications of multiple issues involved and their effect on
    the fighting potential of the services. In other words, a
    decision of colossal significance was taken in a totally
    cavalier, slapdash and hasty manner. As the other two
    services did not want to be seen as ‘male-chauvinists’,
    they followed suit. Soon a race got underway between the
    three services to induct women in maximum number of fields.
    It is only now that a plethora of complex issues are getting
    thrown up with resultant adverse fall-out.

    Presently, the Indian Army counts 2.44 percent women in its
    ranks, the Indian Navy 3.0 percent and the Indian Air Force
    6.7 percent. The
    tenure of women SSC officers has since been increased to
    14 years. The Government has also approved grant of
    Permanent Commission to SSC (Women) officers prospectively
    in Judge Advocate General (JAG) Department and Army
    Education Corps (AEC) of Army and their corresponding
    Branch/Cadre in Navy and Air Force, Accounts Branch of the
    Air Force and Corps of Naval Constructors of the Navy.

    Common Misconceptions and Facts

    • Women
    must get equal opportunities in the services

    The concept of equality of sexes is unquestionable. Its
    application should, however, never affect the fighting
    potential of the armed forces. Two points need to be
    highlighted here. First, the armed forces are constituted
    for national defence and there can be no compromise on that
    issue. Secondly, the armed forces are not a ‘Rozgar
    Yojana’ to provide employment to all segments of the
    society in equal proportion. As it is a question of
    nation’s defence, the best man or woman should be selected
    for every job. In other words, women should be inducted in
    the services only if they add value or at least not affect
    it adversely. No right thinking individual can advocate
    women’s induction at the cost of the fighting potential.
    That would be disastrous for the

    Interestingly, demand for equal opportunities is selective
    in nature. Women want to join only as officers and not as
    soldiers. Additionally, the concept of equality is given a
    go-by soon after commissioning. Applications for peace
    postings and other special dispensations proliferate. They
    join the military on the plank of equality of sexes but this
    plank vanishes the day they join the training academy.
    Thereafter, they again become the weaker sex needing special

    • Women
    can perform all physical tasks as well as men

    Standards of physical fitness of women can never be the
    same as those of men. It is a biological reality and is true
    for all fields including sports. In the case of women
    officers, Indian army has lowered the standards to
    appallingly low levels. Even then many women fail to qualify
    during their pre-commission training. Whereas male cadets
    are required to run 5 km in 28 minutes, women are given 40
    minutes. Similarly, males are required to jump across a 9
    feet wide ditch with full equipment and personal weapon;
    women have to negotiate only a 5 feet wide ditch. Worse,
    most women fail in the test.

    All male officers and soldiers are subjected to annual
    Battle Physical Efficiency Tests till they attain the age of
    45 years. No such tests have been prescribed for women
    officers to avoid embarrassment to them in front of the
    troops. Concerns have also been expressed about the
    susceptibility of Indian women to frequent back problems,
    pelvic injuries and stress fractures.

    A recent review conducted by the British army concluded
    that women have neither the upper-body strength nor the
    physical resilience to withstand intensive combat. Tests in
    2000 respondents found that women were eight times more
    likely than men to sustain injuries other than wounds in

    • Physical
    fitness is of lesser importance in modern fighting

    Need for physical effort is dictated by two factors - level
    of technological development and nature of military’s
    involvement. Requirement for physical prowess undoubtedly
    reduces as the armies advance technologically. In other
    words, quantum of physical effort needed is inversely
    proportional to technological progression. Thus, as an army
    technologically, more high-tech jobs get generated where
    technically qualified women can be gainfully employed. In a
    high-tech army like the US, a woman sitting in the US
    mainland can effectively guide drone attacks in Afghanistan.
    India on the other hand is still a second generation
    technology force which is trying desperately to graduate to
    the third generation. Indian defence forces are man-power
    intensive needing physical ground effort. India has very few
    high-tech jobs.

    As regards degree and extent of a military’s involvement
    in active combat duties, countries like Canada and Australia
    face no internal or external threat and their militaries are
    generally in peacetime mode with routine passive duties.
    They can certainly afford to have a larger percentage of
    women in their forces. Contrast this with India where the
    majority of Army troops are deployed on active combat duties
    in remote, inhospitable and uncongenial areas. Only
    physically fit and tough troops can survive. Worse, peace
    tenures are short and there are very few periods of
    comparative lull.

    Therefore, the Indian services continue to be
    physical-power intensive and will remain so in the near
    future. Only the very fit can survive to deliver in
    India’s hostile environment.

    • The US
    has deployed a large number of women soldiers for fighting
    wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

    Although a large number of women have been deployed in Iraq
    and Afghanistan, their employment has been confined to
    support functions. Although till the end of 2009, the US and
    allies had suffered a total of 4689 casualties, there has
    not been a single woman war casualty. Similarly, despite the
    fact that the US and allies have suffered 1555 casualties,
    not a single woman has lost her life in the Afghanistan war
    so far. Many people tend to confuse
    casualties due to hostile action with combat casualties.
    The US has lost 19 female servicemen in Iraq to hostile
    activities like car bombs, IED blasts and helicopter crashes
    since the beginning of 2007, but there has been no combat
    casualty. It is simply because of the fact no women are
    deployed in combat duties. As a matter of fact, they are
    forbidden to be placed in direct ground combat with enemy.
    They generally perform medical, intelligence, logistic and
    traffic control duties. Women are thus kept sheltered in
    safe appointments, away from the risk of capture by the

    Even in Israel which has conscription for women (as well as
    men), women are not allotted active battle field duties.
    They serve in technical, administrative and training posts
    to release men for active duty.

    • If BSF
    can have an all women battalion to guard border, why not the
    Indian Army

    The Border Security Force (BSF) has certainly raised an all
    women battalion and deployed it on the international border.
    However, the following important facts need to be
    highlighted: -

    • The
    battalion is led by male officers and subordinate
    • The
    battalion has not been positioned on the Line of Control
    where firing and infiltration attempts are frequent.
    Instead, it has been deployed near Ferozepur on the
    International Border (IB) which is totally peaceful and
    where Indian and Pak troops routinely exchange sweets on
    • Even on
    IB no independent sector has been entrusted to the women
    battalion. It has been superimposed on an existing male
    battalion. Importantly, women perform no night guard duties
    – these are performed by males.

    Earlier, village women were not allowed to go across the
    border fence to cultivate their fields as no women sentries
    were available to frisk them. It was a sore point with the
    border folks. The sole purpose of raising the women
    battalion is to redress this long standing grievance. Their
    task is akin to what CISF women have been carrying out at
    the airports for long – frisking of women. Therefore, it
    will be incorrect to call the BSF battalion a fighting

    • Women
    officers help overcome the shortage of officers in the

    It is an erroneous impression that there is a shortage of
    male volunteers for the services. As per the report of the
    Union Public Service Commission for 2006-07, there were a
    total of 5,49,365 candidates for 1724 vacancies for all
    civil services examinations with an Applicants to Post
    Ratio (APR) of 319. On the other hand, 3,41,818
    candidates applied for 793 vacancies in the National
    Defence Academy (NDA), maintaining APR at a healthy 431. It
    implies that for every seat in NDA there were 431
    applicants. Therefore, it is a fallacy that male volunteers
    are insufficient. It is just that the services seek very
    exacting standards for males while women are accepted with
    abysmally low standards.

    • Short
    service commission for women has proved highly productive

    As a matter of fact, short service commission (normally
    extended to 10 years) has proved to be a totally wasteful
    and counter-productive exercise. Women normally get
    commissioned at the age of 23 to 25 years. Within two to
    three years of their commission, they get married, mostly to
    colleague male officers. Soon thereafter they start applying
    for peace postings on compassionate grounds to be with their
    husbands. Every pregnancy means three years’
    exemption from physical activities – one year pre-natal
    and two years post-delivery. With the standard two-child
    norm, a women officer remains physically inactive for close
    to six years. It implies that after the first
    post-commission tenure, a woman officer is rarely in a
    position to participate in field exercises and has to be
    exempted all out-door work. Thus the services gain little.

    In an informal interaction, a senior Junior Commissioned
    Officer (JCO) questioned the rationale of granting SSC to
    women. “In the case of men, 25 to 35 years age span is
    most productive and grant of SSC is understandable. On the
    other hand, women have to raise their families during that
    period. By granting SSC to women, we have achieved nothing
    except increase the load on maternity wards of military
    hospitals,” he opined.

    • If women
    can fight as soldiers in LTTE and Naxalite outfits, why
    not in the services

    Comparing irregular outfits with constitutionally created
    regular forces shows speciousness of the logic. In any case,
    even LTTE recruited women only after it fell short of male
    volunteers. Moreover, women held no high appointments and
    were generally used as pawns in indoctrinated suicide
    squads. If one was to carry the comparison forward, LTTE had
    recruited boys of 15 years to take up arms and act as human
    bombs. A lawfully structured formal organisation cannot be
    expected to follow suit.

    • Indian
    women officers have proved themselves and established their
    credibility as leaders

    Not withstanding the public posturing of the services top
    brass, the experience so far has been highly discouraging.
    Superior male officers admire their enthusiasm despite the
    environmental difficulties, but are faced with the twin
    problems of their safety and
    useful employment. Additionally, as many duties (like
    night duty officer) cannot be assigned to women, male
    officers have to be given additional work load, which they
    resent. There are also concerns, based on Israeli studies,
    that soldiers first instinct may be to defend the women in
    their ranks rather than to fight the enemy.

    Male officers also question the logic of having women only
    as officer. Indian officers pride themselves in the fact
    that they lead from the front and hence have to be better
    than their soldiers both physically and professionally. But,
    by having women only in the officer cadre an impression gets
    conveyed to the environment that officers’ duties are
    softer and can be carried out by women as well, thereby
    lowering their standing.

    As per an informal survey carried out, 81 percent of the
    troops were convinced that women officers could never lead
    them in war efficiently. The balance 19 percent were unsure
    of their response. Acceptability of women as leaders was
    thus very poor. Another segment of respondents viewed the
    whole issue as a political gimmick which did not warrant
    serious attention. “How can the Government be naïve
    enough to think that a leader who cannot run, train and
    exercise with troops and lacks required physical fitness can
    lead them in war?” they query.

    • Women in
    Western forces are well accepted and adjusted

    It is a fallacy. Acceptance of women in the military has
    not been smooth in any country. Despite efforts made to
    sensitise the environment, they continue to be confronted
    with social, behavioural and psychological problems at all
    levels. To date most countries do not allow women tank crews
    because of the cramped conditions and lack of privacy. There
    are also concerns about cramped living conditions on board
    submarines and dangers posed by fumes
    inside the submarine to a foetus if a woman becomes

    Sexual harassment and assaults of women soldiers is known
    to be blatant and quite prevalent in the US forces. A sexual
    harassment hotline set up at Aberdeen received 6,825 calls
    from women from all branches of the military in just two
    months. Hundreds of women are said to have complained of
    sexual assault in the forces since the beginning of Iraq war
    in 2003. Level of moral degradation can be gauged from the
    fact that ‘command rape’ has come to be accepted as a
    common phenomenon in the military - a superior official,
    under the might of his command authority, can force a
    subordinate woman soldier to accede to his sexual demands.
    A joint survey carried out in 2006 in the UK by the
    Ministry of Defence and the Equal Opportunities Commission
    found that 67% of the respondents had experienced sexualised
    behaviour directed at them personally in the previous 12
    months. Worse,
    over half of those who made a formal complaint stated that
    there had been negative consequences as a result of which
    64% were considering leaving the services.
    On the other hand, Indian armed forces can be rightfully
    proud of their record which is far better than that of any
    advanced nation in the world. Women are treated in a manner
    befitting their dignity and their safety is ensured.

    India Needs to Exercise Caution

    It is universally accepted that induction of women in the
    services should be dictated by the level of technology,
    prevailing security environment and the nature of likely
    deployment. Availability of adequate number of male
    volunteers is another major consideration.

    India should follow a graduated approach. Women’s
    expertise, talent and competence should be profitably
    utilised in areas which are totally non-combat in nature.
    For the present, women must continue to play their
    established role in the medical, dental and nursing
    services, both as short service and permanent commission
    officers. However, they should not be granted short service
    commission in any other branch. The Government has rightly
    approved grant of permanent commission to women in legal and
    education departments of the three services, accounts branch
    of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy. Grant of
    permanent commission should also be considered for women in
    Survey of India, Military Engineering Service Militarised
    Cadre and Director General Quality Assurance.

    The current policy of non-induction of women in combat arms
    should continue. Additionally, their entry into Engineers,
    Signals, Supply Corps, Ordnance and EME (Electrical and
    Mechanical Engineers) should be deferred till infusion of
    technology generates adequate number of high-tech jobs.

    Finally, it should never be forgotten that the raison
    d'être for the
    constitution of the armed forces is to ensure security of
    the country. Decisions which have a far reaching effect on
    the defence potential of the armed forces must be taken with
    due diligence. Instead of replicating a model, India must
    chart its own policy. It has an experience of 18 years.
    Honest feedback must be sought to appreciate the true ground
    situation and initiate corrective measures. Most
    importantly, the military brass must show moral courage to
    admit that the present mess demands a holistic review of the
    policy, protestations of self-styled champions of
    gender-parity not withstanding. Decisions taken as a matter
    of political and populist expediency can prove disastrous
    for the nation in the long run. Defence matters cannot be
    treated as publicity gimmick to flaunt sexual equality.
  3. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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