US Military Lifts Ban on Women in Combat; Will India Follow?

US Women in Military

IMAGE CREDIT: Gaurdian

Women in US have been long fighting in the battle zones however their involvement has been somewhat restricted.

Defense secretary Leon Panetta has now decided to lift the ban on women serving in combat. As women have already been serving almost unrestricted in Navy and Air Force, the latest announcement will expand their involvement in Army and Marine Corps, which so far have been dominated by men.

While many question the move, female veterans and activists have welcomed the announcement. The groundbreaking step will open up women’s entry into elite commando jobs, special operation forces such as Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force.

Gender equality cannot be achieved without giving women an equal opportunity in all areas including combat jobs. Countries like New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Israel and Sweden already allow women to serve in all army positions. Others like India are still far behind – India for example didn’t even allow women as permanent officers in military until recently. They were recruited as Short-Service Commissioned (SSC) officers for 5 years. The petition to allow women in combat has been pending with government for many years. Even today, on the occasion of National Girl Child Day, and in light of Pentagon’s announcement, Indian Defense Minister made it clear that government has no plan to open up combat to women.

United States of America has been gradually making the way for women into combat. As per Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Sen. Carl Leven, the announcement to allow women in combat is a reflection of the realities of 21st century military operations. This follows President Barack Obama’s emphatic push for equal rights for all men and women during his inaugural speech on Monday.

The 1994 Pentagon policy prohibited women from being in combat units below the brigade level. But the war in Iraq and Afghanistan broadened women’s role. While they couldn’t be fighting on frontlines, they were there to provide medical aid, air support, and intelligence input to their units. These recent realities and the ongoing lawsuits, which challenged Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat, forced military leaders to rethink the policy and they submitted their recommendation to Defense Secretary last week. A formal announcement, by Defense Secretary, is expected today.

There were many reasons why the combat was a closed door for women. Many believed that women don’t have the strength and stamina to go through rigorous training required for various kinds of military operations. There was also a fear that many Americans might not be able to handle the news of many women soldiers being killed in combat. Some worried about the impact of women’s presence on the morale and the unity of troops. Some even believed that most women themselves wouldn’t want to be part of dangerous jobs. But veteran Jon Soltz puts it in perspective – “when you’re looking for the best of the best you cast a wide net. There are women who can meet these standards, and they have a right to compete.”

In November 2012, US opened up to allow women to serve on submarines.  In February, 2012, US lifted the ban on women for about 14,000 combat roles. Still women constitute only 14.5 percent of US military. The latest announcement of lifting the ban would open up thousands of new job opportunities for women in US.

“We are thrilled to hear Secretary Panetta’s announcement today recognizing that qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction,” Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in statement to AFP. “But we welcome this statement with cautious optimism, as we hope that it will be implemented fairly and quickly so that servicewomen can receive the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts.”

This is truly empowering news for all women – the lifting of ban gives American women an equal chance to succeed in military – and amplifies the demands for gender equality in other fields and other parts of the world.

Women in India, for example, still cannot have an entry into combat roles. In 1992, India threw open the doors for women entry as regular officers in engineering, education, aviation, medical, logistics, and law cadres. But their involvement is highly restricted. They are not even allowed as fighter pilots in Indian Air Force.

The Indian parliament was informed that there has been an increase of 67% in recruitment of women officers in army, navy, and air force in last 3 years. But there is no plan or proposal to induct women in combat roles, or to have a special drive to recruit rural women into armed forces. The unrestricted entry of women in combat roles in US may force countries like India to revisit their policies.

“Women serving in the Indian armed forces is an evolving process. Till 1992, women were never recruited. Now we get permanently absorbed into some of the streams of service. We have come far ahead since the time we started out. I am sure time will come when we will do combat roles too. But it is still a little far away,” a serving woman officer in the rank of an Indian army captain told IANS.

For more analysis read CNN story: Former Troops Say Time Has Come for Women in Combat Units

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