INDIA: The Role of Women in the Armed Forces Needs to be Re-Evaluated

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) had previously reported on the illegal confinement and subsequent discharge of Sabi Giri from the Indian Navy. Sabi, who transitioned from male to female after seven years of service, has challenged her discharge before the Delhi High Court. While the High Court accepted the Navy’s argument that Sabi’s status as a woman rendered her ineligible to continue in her former job, it also suggested that Sabi beaccommodated in a clerical job within the Navy, which is available to both men and women. While the Court’s attitude towards the matter is commendable, in that it acknowledged the danger caused by suppression of one’s true gender identity, it did not address the wider issue of why women are deemed ineligible for combat roles.

The Indian Air Force broke new ground by inducting three women as fighter pilots last year, while General Bipin Rawat, chief General of the Army, issued a statement in June this year, pledging to induct women into active combat roles as soon as possible. The Indian Navy has issued no such statement. However, it is unlikely that this integration – which has been promised for years – will take place on a priority basis. Meanwhile, there appears to be no logical reason to exclude women from participating in active combat. Studies have proven that women in combat roles perform no differently from the men in those roles. Since there is no difference in the physical training standards to which they must adhere, both men and women in combat roles are equally capable of performing their duties as active combatants in the armed forces. At present, women in nations including Denmark, Norway, Israel, and the Netherlands, are treated at-par with their male counterparts, and there has been no evidence of any reduction in performance due to this inclusion.

Other arguments against women in combat roles include the probability that women may face sexual harassment, as they will be living in closed quarters with male officers. While it is imperative to address this issue head-on rather than sweeping it under the carpet, this is not a good enough reason to restrict the employment of women. Women in India are likely to face sexual harassment at the workplace, whether they are in combat roles or not, whether they are in the Armed forces or in a corporate office. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013 was passed in order to prevent and address the issue and while it is not without loopholes, it is a good start . The response to sexual harassment should not be to ban women from a workplace but rather to sensitize men, help internalise norms of gender-sensitive behaviour and to ensure that stringent action is taken against any offenders. Suggesting that women should not participate in armed combatant roles due to the possibility of sexual harassment, is akin to restricting their activity solely due to the misconduct of men. In the crusade for gender equality, we must ensure that we punish the perpetrator rather than the victim. Women should not be forced to bear the economic burden of misogynistic thought and sexist behaviour.

The Armed Forces is one of the most disciplined and regimented careers that one can pursue, and the members of these forces are subject to the code of conduct enacted by the branch of the Armed Forces with whom they are employed. Moreover, none of these codes of conduct restrict the application of the aforementioned Act of 2013, which means that male members of the Armed Forces who subject women to sexual harassment can and should be held liable for the same. Nirmala Sitharaman India’s Defence Minister, has promised to look into the appointment of women in combat roles with an open mind, it is hoped that the Armed Forces will soon enact a fair policy to include women in these roles. It is essential that such a policy is inclusive of transgender persons, to ensure equality of opportunity and employment to everyone, regardless of gender identity. Sabi Giri’s fight for equality is an opportunity to further the fight for equality for all women in the Armed Forces and it is hoped that this conversation is taken up with an open mind by those who take these crucial decisions.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-141-2017
Countries : India,
Issues : Administration of justice, Women's rights,