It is generally unlawful to treat women less favourably than males on the basis of their sex, this includes excluding women from certain employment types. Under the Equality Act 2010, however, the Armed Forces are permitted to discriminate against women and transsexuals provided it can be shown to be a proportionate means of ensuring Combat Effectiveness.
Source: WOMEN IN GROUND CLOSE COMBAT (GCC) REVIEW PAPER – 01 DECEMBER 2014, United Kingdom
While the Equality Act 2010 still constitutes current legislation in the UK, the aforementioned rule that allowed a legal basis for the exclusion of women from Ground-Close Combat (GCC) was repealed in July 2016.
A similar ban on the inclusion of women in combat positions echoes in countries throughout the world. It is felt that greater inclusion of women, especially into combat positions, carries the potential to degrade team cohesion and military effectiveness. Some simply state that women lack the “killer instinct” and hence should be restricted to pacifying and peace-keeping jobs. The more sophisticated form in which the argument is presented is by saying that there is no way of knowing whether mixed gender teams could function as well as all-male teams in ground combat units, where the primary role is to “close with and kill the enemy” since empirical evidence on this subject could not be obtained.
Another argument for combat exclusion turns on women’s need for greater protection from risky situations. India’s previous Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, announced in 2015, “Barring combat duties, women are being recruited for all other duties. What if there is a war situation and our women soldiers are made prisoners of war? We cannot have that situation.” However, this argument is hard to sustain on examination of the risks to which women soldiers have already been exposed and their performance in recent deployments. Combat-support duties are often as risky and dangerous as those directly combative. Till 2013, over 130 American military women have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet they were not in combat. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that the largest chunk of promotions to elevated ranks are reserved for personnel who have served in combat positions. Hence, it is actually the glass ceiling of military: banning women from entering combat forces and in effect jeopardising their chances of promotion.
In the past decade, around 16 of the 195 countries of the world have shed their ban on women in combat. Of these, 8 are NATO member states – Germany, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, the Netherlands, the USA and the UK. States like the UK (after reviewing their law three times) finally opened combat roles to women in 2016, just after the US announced in 2015 that it would open all combat roles in its military to women. India too seems to have jumped on the bandwagon with the government approving plans by the Indian Air Force for women pilots to fly warplanes in October 2017. This was followed by Army Chief Bipin Rawat announcing in June 2017 that plans are being made for integrating women into combat positions. States like South Africa and Pakistan have broken their regional norms and permitted women to fly combat aircraft from the start of the twenty-first century.
What explains this drastic shift in these nation states’ perception when it comes to the inclusion of women in combat? It seems that these nations have realised the importance of women combatants as a resource in dealing with the new face of conflict. Science proves that physically (in terms of muscle power), an average male is stronger than an average female, not that all males are stronger than all females. The removal of the ban is an acknowledgment that antiquated constructions of masculinity in opposition to femininity that have seeped into combat regulations are becoming more and more difficult to defend in modern warfare. David Cameron, after announcing the UK government’s plans to annul the combat exclusion law, said in a NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2015, “It is vital that our armed forces are world-class and reflect the society we live in.”
Having more diverse armed forces reflects the complexities of the conflict zones in which they now operate. Battles are often fought in highly populated areas, with combatants intermixed with civilian villages rather than the remote frontlines of the 20th Century. There are no defined frontlines in war anymore. 225,000 women have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the ban. They have proved to be vital in cases where secret information had to be extracted from civilian women living in villages of Afghanistan as women tended to trust female combatants more. The armed forces are also often used for more than the fighting of wars – contributing to stabilisation efforts, for example. In addition, the enemy has shown that it is readily prepared to use women in conflict, in the most unflinching of ways. As Boko Haram and Islamic State struggle to recruit enough male cadets, they have realised both the propaganda and practical value of using women as suicide bombers.
Despite all this, there is a long way to go. At least 179 (of the 195) countries still hold archaic values and laws which ban women from entering combat. In addition, women combatants do not feel welcomed in the misogynist and sexually charged environment of the armed forces. Cases of sexual abuse of female soldiers by their male colleagues recur in the news. This has largely discouraged women from entering the combat forces and hence the proportion of female combatants remain marginal in countries which have opened up its military to them. However this is a start. While some degree of sexual assault occurs in all professions, it is bound to be less prevalent in a system where women have equal standing, a strong numerical presence, and well-earned leadership roles.