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Let's give it a good shot

There is every reason for the country to consider gender equality on the frontline.

india Updated: Feb 01, 2013 21:59 IST

The decision of the US military to allow women to serve in combat positions will be a first for a military of its size. There are many countries that have allowed women soldiers to be on the firing line - and to be firing back - but most of them have been relatively small armies. The US government's decision is of interest because it possesses the world's most-powerful military and many aspiring armies try to follow its template. The truth is that there are strong practical and moral reasons for steadily increasing the role of women in the military.

There are four standard arguments against allowing women to be in combat positions. First is physical weakness. This is specious: objective physical criteria like strength and stamina apply to the recruitment of any soldier. Any person, irrespective of gender, who can achieve those criteria should be eligible. Second, the female presence disrupts the esprit de corps that is crucial to the glue that ensures military formations do not break under fire. But countries like Israel, which has an all-woman battalion, have shown this can be handled with the right kind of training. Third, women run the risk of sexual assault if captured by the enemy. This also holds true for men and given the more violent fates that can await a soldier, this should be seen as just one of the risks that face anyone who dons a uniform. Iraq and Afghanistan helped inspire the US to change its gender policy. It was found, for example, that in the sort of counter-insurgency operations that have become the most common variety of warfare, women in mixed infantry units proved more capable of collecting information from local children and women. A more double-edged blessing was the unwillingness of Islamicist militants to surrender to a female. There are lessons for India's military and paramilitary forces that spend almost all their time in non-conventional warfare.

The fourth reason is that the greatest threat a female soldier faces, repeated studies show, is the likelihood of sexual violence from her own male colleagues. This is a real problem that has confronted any military that attempts to increase the number of women in its ranks. This is a reason for military reform, not an argument against inducting women. A gender friendly army requires a careful recalibration of the structures of authority and redressal. There is every reason for India to contemplate gender equality on the frontline. But it should also seek to take steps to make its armed force far more hospitable to women as a whole, both in combat and elsewhere.