Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Shooting down the ceiling - women in the army

Women now have permanent commission in the Indian Army but remain a long way from equal representation in the armed forces, suggests data

In 1993, Priya Jhingan fulfilled a childhood dream and joined the Indian Army as one of its first female officers. Her dream job, though, only lasted 10 years. She, like other women in India’s Armed Forces, could never get permanent commission.

That ceiling has now been shattered with a Supreme Court ruling allowing permanent commission for women. Still, data suggests that India remains a long way from equal representation in the army and other branches of the military.

Across India’s army, navy and air force, there were only 3,653 women compared to 62,507 men in 2018, according to the latest data presented to Parliament. In terms of gender ratios, the air force has the best gender balance, but men still constitute seven times the cadre. In the army, the ratio is worse: there are 27 men per woman.

These figures, though, exclude women working in health-related ancillary services such as medical, dental and nursing. Across all Armed Forces, women have traditionally been confined to these health-related roles mainly because this was the branch that has always been open to them. Consequently, the medical services of the Armed Forces employ 1.3 times the number of women in any other service. Starting in 1992, other branches slowly began opening up. Women were permitted to join education and logistics branches in 2008, followed by engineering and intelligence half a decade later.

Among women working in non-health related roles, over two-thirds of all women in the three wings of the forces join engineering and logistical services. These positions include women in military communications, service corps, mechanical and electronic engineering. But in technical segments, such as army air defence and military intelligence, women’s participation remains low.

Overall, the integration of women into the military has been piecemeal and the battle for permanent commission especially long-drawn.

The Supreme Court ruling on permanent commission comes 15 years after the first case was filed in 2003. In the ruling, the apex court notes that women’s performance in the army has been at par with men, and they should be rewarded for this. But while the ruling opens up commanding positions for women in the army, it has remained silent on the issue of them being allowed in combat positions.

In the navy and air forces, certain combat roles are open to women, but there is no such provision yet in the army.

More generally, the issue of women’s representation in combat roles has been contentious across the world. Data on the gender composition in global Armed Forces is patchy, making comparisons with India difficult. But estimates from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) show that women do not contribute significantly to the combat forces of NATO militaries. In 2017, less than a fifth of all NATO active military duty personnel were women with Hungary, the US and Canada having the highest female representation.

In their judgement, the apex court stressed that men and women should be given equal opportunities within the army. But this advice applies to other forms of public administration and services and even the judiciary itself.

Across all levels of India’s public service, women’s representation is low. Only 23% of the Indian Administrative Service, 12% of the current Lok Sabha and 11% of Supreme Court judges are women.

The only positions close to equal representation are panchayat level leaders (46%) — and that too because of mandatory reservation. And even compared to the poor female representation in these services, India’s military lags way behind. In this context, the Supreme Court ruling is a welcome step and will motivate more women to join the army as they can finally see the Armed Forces as a long-term career option, according to Captain Rupinder Kaur who served in the Ordnance Corps from 2000-06.

“But more measures like opening the doors of the National Defence Academy, which is still reserved only for boys post-schooling, and adding women to the rank and file (in the same way police has woman constables) are also needed to ensure women get the representation they deserve," she said.


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