Breaking the glass ceiling
In today’s time and age, the top-ranking women from each branch of the military from across the world have many stories of adversity and struggle to share, highlighting their formidable journeys to reach the highest levels of the armed forces. Nevertheless, opportunities are building up for more women to take part in combat roles as laws are being rewritten to address the issues of underrepresentation and broaden the appeal of military service
Recently, the Supreme Court pulled up the Indian Army for showing “disservice” to women permanent commission officers who were denied promotion as Colonels as it found the cut-off for considering their confidential reports to be “arbitrary” and directed that a fresh exercise be conducted within a fortnight to reconsider the case of nearly 136 women officers in the race for promotion.
The top court also noted that women officers in the Army were being compelled to repeatedly approach the legal system in this regard despite earlier orders in their favour.
The women officers of the Indian Army, all of whom had been granted permanent commission, had approached the Supreme Court due to their non-empanelment for promotion to the rank of Colonel.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud stated: “The cut-off was applied arbitrarily in the present case to ostensibly equate the women officers to their male counterparts.” The Army and the Union government justified their action by relying on their policy framework and the top court’s judgment of March 2021 which laid common benchmarks for men and women short-service commission officers to be considered for permanent commission.
“An attitude has been to find some way to defeat the just entitlements of women officers. Such an approach does disservice to the need to provide justice to the women officers, who have already fought a long and hard battle, to get their just entitlements under law,” the bench, also comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, added.
According to the empanelment policy, Confidential Reports (CRs) would be considered for promotion by the selection boards. The framework in question provided for the primacy of CRs over other things, with the CRs accounting for 89 out of 100 marks.
The apex court said the policy framework set out makes it clear that all Confidential Reports (CR) were required to be taken into consideration after nine years of service. It said a cut-off was applied arbitrarily in the present case to equate the women officers with their male counterparts.
The top court also rejected the submission that there was an inadequate number of vacancies for accommodating the officers.
Currently, deliberations are underway to formulate a policy to deal with the issue of career progression of women officers in the Indian Army and for considering their promotion from the rank of Colonel to Brigadier, the Supreme Court was recently informed.
The bench, meanwhile, has granted the Army time till March 31, 2024, to draw up a policy pursuant to an earlier direction on career progression of women officers, and listed their plea in the first week of April next year.
Over 7,000 women personnel are serving in the Indian Army at present followed by 1,636 in the Indian Air Force and 748 in the Navy, according to details provided by the government in Lok Sabha in March this year. Replying to a question, Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt said 7,093 women are in the Army, which included 6,993 in the Army Medical Corps, Army Dental Corps and Military Nursing Service (MNS).
About the IAF, he said women officers are empowered to hold key appointments, including commanding officers, in combat units of various field units.
India prides in having the second-largest military in the world and traditionally, the armed forces have been a male bastion. However, with changing times, young Indian women are marching forward to conquer the final frontier with the armed forces becoming their top choices.
“If every girl dreamt that she wants to join the Army and grew up with that dream in her mind, whether she finally lands up or not, half the battle would have been won and the country would be amazing,” Lt Gen Madhuri Kanitkar, the third female officer to be promoted to the three-star rank in the Armed Forces was quoted as saying.
But across the world, marking a stark contrast to the conventional recruitment order, there has been a sea change in the promotion of women to leadership roles within the Army, Navy and Air Force.
During the Revolutionary War, women served the US Army in traditional roles as nurses, seamstresses and cooks for troops in camp. Some courageous women served in combat either alongside their husbands or disguised as men while others operated as spies for the cause.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, garrisons depended on women to make soldiers’ lives tolerable. Some found employment with officers’ families or as mess cooks. Women employed as laundresses, cooks or nurses were subject to the Army’s rules of conduct.
Their inclusion in combat missions has increased in recent decades, often serving as pilots, mechanics, doctors or nurses at the warfront and infantry officers.
Since 1914, women have been conscripted in greater numbers, filling a greater variety of roles in Western militaries. In the 1970s, most Western armies began allowing women to serve on active duty in all military branches. In 2006, eight countries (China, Eritrea, Israel, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Peru, and Taiwan) conscripted women into military service. In 2013, Norway became the first NATO country to draft women, as well as the first country in the world to conscript women on the same formal terms as men, followed by Sweden in 2017, and The Netherlands in 2018.
Russia is the only nation to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers. Female recruits, historically speaking, either joined the military in disguise or were tacitly accepted by their units.
In Serbia, some women played key military roles. Milunka Savić enlisted in the Serbian army in place of her brother and fought throughout the First World War, becoming one of the most decorated women in military history.
In 1917, Loretta Walsh of the United States became the first woman to enlist openly as a woman. A 1948 law made women a permanent part of the military service. In 1976, the first group of women was admitted into a US military academy.
In India, some extraordinary women are walking shoulder to shoulder with their male officers, donning roles from the medical corps to combat and inspiring generations to come.
Some of them include names like Lieutenant General Punita Arora who made history by becoming the first lady Lieutenant General of the Indian Army.
Lieutenant General Madhuri Kanitkar has also been a great inspiration for those who want to join the Indian armed forces. Lt Gen Kanitkar is among the three female officers to be promoted to the three-star rank in the Armed Forces. She served as the Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Medical).
Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay is one of the most decorated military leaders in India. She was the first woman in the Indian Air Force to be promoted to the three-star rank. She became the first lady Air Marshal. Air Marshal Bandopadhyay received a Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind in the field of medicine. She is also a recipient of the Indira Priyadarshini Award. In January 2002, she received the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) and the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) in 2006.
Commander Prerna Deosthalee is set to be the first woman officer of the Indian Navy to command the Indian Naval Warship. She is currently the First Lieutenant of the warship INS Chennai.
In February 2011, Lt Col Mitali Madhumita became India’s first female officer to receive the Sena Medal for gallantry, a decoration given to soldiers for exemplary courage during operations in J&K and the northeast.
Captain Shiva Chouhan became the first woman officer to get operationally deployed at the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen, after training at Siachen Battle School along with other personnel.
Lieutenant Ganeve Lalji, a young intelligence officer, created history by becoming the first woman to be appointed as a key aide to an Army Commander.
Colonel Shuchita Shekhar became the first woman officer of the Army Service Corps to assume command of a Communication Zone Mechanical Transport Battalion responsible for the maintenance of the Supply Chain of the fully operational Northern Command while Colonel Geeta Rana of the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers became the first woman officer to take over command of an Independent Field Workshop in a forward and remote location in Eastern Ladakh.
In a historic first, the Indian Army inducted its first batch of “Five Women Officers” into the Regiment of Artillery on April 29, 2023. According to media reports, Lt Mehak Saini, Lt Sakshi Dubey, Lt Aditi Yadav, Lt Pious Mudgil and Lt Akanksha joined the Army’s premier artillery units after completing their training at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai. The Regiment of Artillery is a combat/fighting arm of the Indian Army.
Captain Surbhi Jakhmola, an Indian Army officer from 117 Engineer Regiment, was posted to Border Road Organisation’s Project Dantak in Bhutan. She became the first woman officer to be posted on foreign assignment in the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).
Women have been involved in combat roles in several countries in recent times. In 2022, around 20.9 percent of active duty officers in the United States Navy were women while 18.8 percent were part of the Army. Additionally, approximately 19 percent of officers in the Space Force were women.
Eighteen months on from Russia’s invasion, there are 60,000 women serving in Ukraine’s armed forces. More than 42,000 are in military positions, including 5,000 female soldiers on the front line.
New Zealand integrated women into the Defence Forces in 1977 and opened doors across all its defence units, which includes infantry, armoury and artillery units, in 2001.
Canada decided to admit women to combat positions in 1989. In 2001, the ban on women serving aboard submarines was also lifted, allowing women to serve in all occupational positions. Women, however, constitute only 2.4 per cent of the combat units, while 15 per cent of Canadian military forces comprise women.
The percentage of women in the Uruguayan Armed Forces rose by 25 per cent in recent years, with military women assuming more important responsibilities in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense indicated. According to the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense, nearly 20 percent of the Armed Forces are women.
The United States has the highest number of women serving in its armed forces. While women have always been a part of the various military conflicts that the country has been a part of, it was only during World War I that they could enrol in non-nursing areas. In 2016, women became eligible for all jobs within the Army’s Combat Arms branch. In 2022, there were 6,870 women working in the branch, making up 4.2 per cent of the roles.
Women were a part of combat during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, however, it was only in 1985 that women were officially allowed to take up combat roles by the Israeli Defence Force. Between the period of 1962 and 2016, 535 female Israeli soldiers have been killed in combat. Israel has called up 350,000 of its reservists as its conflict with Hamas escalates.
The overall participation rate of women in the Australian Defence Force in 2021/2022 was 20.1 per cent. That represents an increase of 5.7 percentage points since 2012 (14.4 per cent).
In 2001, Germany opened combat units for women. Currently, women serve across all units, including onboard jet fighters, submarines and paratroopers. This has increased the number of women serving in the army and the share of women has grown from 1.4 per cent in 2000 to 12.1 per cent in 2018.
Today’s military is much more integrated along gender lines than at any time in the past. However, more women need to hold leadership positions in combat roles, bringing to the table more critical thinking skills that the world’s most formidable fighting forces require.
Views expressed are personal