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Parity for women in no-combat roles

New Delhi, Sept. 26: The Centre today announced that women in the armed forces would be granted permanent commission in non-combatant roles with the privileges, rights and duties of their male counterparts.

Calling the decision a “path-breaking development”, a defence ministry statement said A.K. Antony had approved the long-standing proposal to grant permanent commission “prospectively to short service commission officers, both men and women in branches and cadres of the three services, which do not entail direct combat or possibility of physical contact with enemy”.

In 2005, the armed forces headquarters had recommended exclusion of women from permanent commission for another 10 years.

The ethos of the armed forces is overly male. Commanding officers of frontline units have complained how difficult it has been to accommodate women posted temporarily with them.

These complaints have ranged from lack of facilities such as separate toilets, bunkrooms and quarters to the inability of troops to culturally adjust with lady officers.

But last month, a senior air force officer said the first batch of women on permanent commission, with a tenure of 20 years of service and extendable according to rank and performance, is likely to debut in 2013 after four years’ training.

Among the non-combatant wings in which women will be granted permanent commission are the judge advocate- general’s branch (military legal departments of the army, navy and air force), in the education corps and departments, accounts branch of the air force and the naval construction department.

Women officers cannot lead troops to battle and in counter-insurgency, fly fighter aircraft or set out to sea on operational missions.

Army, navy and air force headquarters have been asked to formulate the merit and eligibility conditions to grant permanent commission.

This is likely — though it is not yet decided — to open the door of institutions such as the National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy and departments of the Naval and Air Force Academies to women.

Today’s decision by the government is a measured victory for women in the armed forces, some of whom have taken their pleas to the courts.

Armed forces headquarters had insisted that granting permanent commission was linked to combat roles. In 2006, a tri-service study again recommended excluding women from close-combat roles “where chances of physical contact with the enemy are high”.

Sensing the mood of the government, the Chiefs of Staff Committee recommended in early August that women may be granted permanent commission in select cadres.

With today’s decision, Antony has de-linked the issue of permanent commission from the issue of combat roles.

Allowing women in combat roles involves not only questions of culture, principle and ethics, but also operational demands of the fighting forces — such as the physical ability to fight, the ability to bodily evacuate casualties under fire, the possibility of hostage situations and the public response that such threats can evoke.

Women have been in the armed forces in India for about 80 years in the medical and nursing corps. Women have been taken in short service commission (again in strictly non-combat roles) since 1992. Currently, there are 1,072 women officers in the Indian Army (not including the medical corps).

In the air force, women are in ground duties and fly transport aircraft . There are 793 women in the IAF.

In the navy, there are women as officers in the education branch, logistics and law cadre since 1992. They will be inducted as air traffic controllers also. They are not posted to serve afloat.

There are 752 lady medical officers, 86 lady dental officers and 2,834 members of the All Women Military Nursing Service.

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