Welcome to the Boy’s Club: The rise of women in armed forces

by Kate Dinnison, an American student of International Relations at KCL. Editor of the North America section.

Pershmerga women warriors have been taking up arms since 1996 to protect their contested territory in Kurdistan. Now, they take on the task of protecting it from ISIS. Source: VICE

Pershmerga women warriors have been taking up arms since 1996 to protect their contested territory in Kurdistan. Now, they take on the task of protecting it from ISIS.
Source: VICE

By 2016 the UK is expected to lift its legal barrier for women in infantry and armored corps positions. As such an exemplary military governed by a progressive government, it is surprising that such strides for equality have not already been taken. The idea behind the movement is that many women in combat today are just as capable to serve on the front lines as their male counterparts, but have, until recently, been banned for logistical and physical reasons. By no means should our countries militaries lower their physical standards for entry for the sake of affirmative action, but simply making the option available makes a statement about the importance of gender equality in government employment.

Countries such as Israel and Pakistan see no such barriers – recently Pakistan made headlines for the training of a group of elite women commandos to fight the omnipresent Taliban and strengthen their armed forces. The list of countries that already is long, many unexpected considering their political or religious tradition on the role of women in society – New Zealand lifted all job restrictions for women in 2000, China graduated its first class of female fighter pilots in 2009, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot flew her fist strike mission in Syria recently. In countries that still have conscription, the policies are varied when it comes to women – The IDF allows women to participate in artillery units, rescue forces, and in anti-aircraft forces during their two years of conscription, whereas Russia excludes women from conscription and bars women from combat roles altogether. The list goes on.

In 2013 Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the barriers that have prevented women from serving in direct combat roles in the US armed forces, specifically in the effort in Afghanistan where it is needed most. With the prominence of the US’ military, this change was a long-awaited transformation considering it’s sort of “mentor” role in training forces in struggling Afghanistan, Burma and the Central African Republic among others. Countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria that are strengthening their militaries to combat the threat of insurgents cold learn from Pakistan’s inclusion of women in their elite armed forces as a way to not only defend their populace, but empower it.

It is difficult to understand the modern combat experience if you haven’t experienced it first-hand, let alone a female one, but new, higher standards of documentation from the front lines can give us an idea. The problem, however of harassment, sexual and of other nature, is still a huge barrier to women’s success and desire to be in the military. In 2012, a confidential Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 men and women were sexually assaulted. The estimated number of these cases that are actually reported, let alone proceed to trial is appalling. Of those, 3,374 cases were reported and the Pentagon has since seen a 50% increase in the number of cases of rape and sexual assault for both men and women.  Such is this issue of integration of women into the military workplace as policy-makers see it – perhaps additional training exercises aimed at bridging this gap, an expedited reporting process, and, frankly, higher consequences for committing these crimes could lower these statistics.

The face of the military, especially in the West, is changing from that of a strong, white male, to one more diverse, both race and gender-wise. With such changes, maybe it’s time to diversify the executive decision making as well as acceptance on even the lowest levels of the military, especially considering the continued operations in the Middle East and the heightened tensions in Ukraine.

The tools to crush modern inequalities and empower women through channels of employment like the military do exist; it’s the political will that’s lacking in many places. Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky explains the change in mentalities that also needs to come with these changes in the evolution women’s rights: “Our focus has to be on changing reality, not [only] changing laws.”

Sources:
Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof

US Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest Report, 2014

The US Department of Defense

BBC World Service Radio

Chatham House, The World Today

The Washington Post

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