Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd) The Army recently initiated the process for the recruitment of women as soldiers in the Military Police. This is a very significant decision as the entry of women in the Indian military is currently restricted to only the officer rank in select logistics and support branches. While this is a very welcome step, it is also likely to reignite the debate over expanding the opportunities for women to enter the combat arms in the Army. In December 2018, an interview of the Army Chief had stirred up a controversy over his comments on giving combat role to women. Without going into the merits of his argument, it must be brought out that this is not a simple issue to resolve and must be viewed dispassionately. Those who caution against the induction of women in combat arms state that the Army cannot be compared to any other organisation. Wars are violent and brutal and fought in the harshest of terrain and conditions. They must be won by the most efficient application of power and with least casualties to our force. It is for this reason that the military organisation has retained a unique ethic distinct from its civilian counterparts. Combat is physically demanding and has therefore been primarily a masculine endeavour. Physically, women are weaker than their male counterparts, and this could be a severe disadvantage in combat roles that involve carrying heavy loads and long-distance marching. This physical disparity cannot be wished away, and any dilution in standards could degrade effectiveness. It is for this reason that most militaries around the world have seen minimal participation by women in combat arms. Canada has one of the most gender-integrated militaries in the world, with over 15% representation of women and with 13 women in the General and Flag Officer ranks. However, women in the infantry are less than 1%. It is also pointed out that a small representation of women in combat arms will not have any positive impact and could adversely impact unit cohesion. In field areas and along hostile borders, male soldiers or officers will have to take on an additional burden, and this could lead to discrimination against the female officer. Pro-women groups invoke the right to equality while pressing for participation in all sections of the Army, including combat arms. They state that this is an inalienable right granted by the Constitution. While men, in general, have higher physical attributes, there are also some women who can meet the required physical standards for combat arms and should not be denied the opportunity if they desire to serve in these units. They also challenge the theory of women in combat arms resulting in a loss of unit cohesion. Prof Anthony King has carried out extensive studies on gender integration in the military, with a focus on unit cohesion. His findings, as outlined in his article The Female Soldier, indicate that ‘collective combat performance – cohesion – relies more on training and professional competence. Accordingly, individuals are judged not so much on their personal characteristics but their professional ability and they are accepted into the section, platoon, or company on this basis.’ In my view, the debate around women in combat arms is not headed for an early resolution. In the meantime, we should turn our attention to gender mainstreaming in the Army, which is a more crucial requirement. Today, women in the Army are an integral part of the organisation and are doing an outstanding job, but there are many hurdles to achieving gender integration. The token inclusion of women in various arms will not automatically result in gender equality in an institution that idolises masculinity. We have to therefore focus on systems and policies that give rise to disadvantages by treating gender as the reason for various exclusions. About 1,500 women commissioned as Short Service officers are not being considered for permanent commission. This issue has been dragging on in the courts, and although there have been some recent pronouncements about the grant of permanent commission, the exact terms are unclear. The first step towards gender integration will be to treat men and women on a par and offer a regular grant of commission to women. The disparity in career management must also be addressed. Currently, women officers are barred from attending courses, for instance, at Defence Services Staff College. This limits their opportunities for taking up important career-enhancing appointments and also restricts their experience. This automatically places them at a considerable disadvantage vis-a-vis their male counterparts, exacerbating disparity. This reinforces the belief that the Army is a male-dominant organisation with women in secondary roles.
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