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Women in combat roles in armed forces: the global experience

The decision to allow women fighter pilots in the IAF has been welcomed for being progressive — even if the larger question on the role of women in combat remains unanswered.

Written by Pranav Kulkarni |
Updated: December 25, 2015 10:54:49 pm
women army, women fighter pilots, women in combat, female workforce, women ADF, Australian Defence Forces, sexual harassment, Israel women force, Israeli Defence Forces, Ayesha Farooq, Explained, the indian express The experience of nations that have walked — or contemplated — this path earlier has been mixed.


In 2013, all jobs in the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) were opened to women. Entry is currently restricted to women already in the ADF; direct entry will begin from January 2016. As of April 1, 2015, 15.4 per cent (8,823 personnel) of the ADF permanent workforce was female. Women were 19 per cent (2,637) of the Navy, 12 per cent (3,517) of the Army, and 18.7 per cent (2,669) of the Air Force. 266 women are currently part of ADF operations overseas, representing 14.9 per cent of the overseas force.

For a long time, Australia remained apprehensive about the fact that women’s limited physical strength compared to men would expose them to greater risks while operating in the same dangerous conditions.


Has allowed women in combat since 2001, the year a European Court of Justice ruled that preventing women from taking combat roles was against gender equality. However, in 2014, the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, quoting a survey by the German Ministry of Defence, reported that given a choice, only 57.3 per cent women in the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) would take the job again. This figure, the report said, was smaller than the corresponding figure for 2005. The survey asked respondents questions on whether women were accepted by male superiors and comrades, whether they were vulnerable to sexual harassment, what career opportunities they saw for themselves, etc.

The survey also showed 34 per cent of military men believed women were not suited to harsh field conditions. In 2005, 83 per cent men believed that men and women could work together in the army; in 2013, this number had fallen to 77 per cent.

More than 50 per cent male respondents said women received preferential treatment, while 50 per cent women officers claimed they had faced direct or indirect sexual harassment in the form of jokes, exposure to pornography, unwanted physical contact, etc.

In medical services women are 40 per cent; in other arms of the German armed forces, they are only 10 per cent. German women who have served in Afghanistan have mostly been limited to medical roles.


Women have served in combat roles since 1995. Israel’s Security Service Law of 1949 makes military training obligatory for both men and women. A 1951 decision by the Israeli Defence Ministry that women should not be allowed in “close combat positions” was altered in 1995 after Alice Miller, a South African immigrant, went to court against the rejection of her application to join the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). In 2013, a new law reduced military service of men from 36 months to 32, and increased the tenure of women from 24 months to 28.

Following public pressure, the IDF in 2000 raised Caracal Battalions, named after a desert feline, as an “intensive combat unit for girls”. 70 per cent of the 500 Caracal personnel are women. Overall, 92 per cent of positions in IDF are open to women; 33 per cent of the IDF are women. However, most “close combat positions” are still not open to women.


In June 2013, Flight Lieutenant Ayesha Farooq became the first Pakistani woman fighter pilot. This was followed by 19 women joining the PAF as pilots. Women began serving in the PAF as doctors, nurses in the late 50s. In 1995, Benazir Bhutto persuaded Air Chief Marshal Abbas Khattak to increase the role of women in the PAF.


In January 2013, the US rescinded a rule that restricted women from serving in combat units; implementation is likely to start after January 2016. Earlier, in 1977, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to define “combat”, and the deliberations led to women being assigned permanent duties on board non-combatant navy ships. In 1994, the “risk rule” that excluded women from non-combat  missions if there was risk of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire or capture, was lifted.

According to a US Congressional Research Service paper published in September, until April 2015, 161 women had lost their lives and 1,015 had been wounded in the Global War on Terror. In modern combat operations, over 9,000 women have received Army Combat Action Badges for “actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy”.

The paper said: “During Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait, women played a more prominent role than in previous conflicts. Approximately 16 women were killed… and two were taken prisoner…”

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