India opens highest military ranks to women after long struggle

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NEW DELHI – India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday opened the door for women to pursue military careers at the highest levels, a milestone in a country where gender inequalities are rife and women are leaving the world in droves. labor market.

The court ordered the government to allow women in November, for the first time, to take the entrance exam to India’s first defense academy, the pipeline for top military commanders, from the country’s navy and air force. While the court has allowed the government to continue to exclude women from most combat roles, the ruling could encourage more women to pursue careers in the military.

It “gives a feeling of victory,” said Anju Bala, a former major in the Indian army.

“They have one more window to compete on a level playing field with men,” she said.

Women represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 1.3 million people serving in India’s armed forces, among the largest in the world. They can serve as officers, but their benefits were limited as they could not attend the elite military academy. Similar schools in the United States, such as the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, began admitting women in 1976.

Now they can enter the military straight out of high school and aspire to the top ranks. The move could also give them more legal support as they fight for equal access to combat roles.

Across India, women have been pushing for bigger roles in the workplace. Only 9 percent of working-age women are employed, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. India pledged at a meeting of the Group of 20 of the world’s largest economies in June to do more to reduce gender discrimination in recruitment, wages and working conditions.

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Women have served in the Indian armed forces since British colonial rule. They were deployed as nurses during the two world wars. In 2007, Indian women officers served in post-war Liberia as the United Nations’ first all-female peacekeeping force.

Since the early 1990s, in response to court cases, women have been eligible for short-term commissions in the educational and legal services of the armed forces. Over the years, women have gained access to eight additional departments, including engineering, intelligence and logistics.

In recent years, women’s access to other fields has widened, including the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force, in 2016, and the military police in 2019.

But their tenure remained largely capped at 14 years, and opportunities for higher leadership were limited. Only men could enter the armed forces at age 17 by gaining admission to the National Defense Academy, a four-year program that forms the core of India’s military leadership. Women were allowed to enroll through what was considered a less prestigious 11-month training course after graduating from college.

With fewer opportunities to rise up, many had to leave the military sooner than they wanted.

Sowmya Narayani, 34, served in the Indian Air Force for 11 years, after which his short-term commission ended. Ms Narayani briefly worked for Infosys, the Indian tech giant, but reportedly considered a career in the military.

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Now a stay-at-home mom in Chennai, a city in southern India, she said the possibility of a long-term commission would have given her financial independence and the ability to better plan for her future.

“You finish your term in your mid-thirties,” she said. “With a young family, relocating at this age is very difficult.

Women have challenged boundaries in court for decades. Two years ago, the government agreed to give standing commissions to women, but only to officers who had served under the age of 14, citing the physical limitations of older female officers.

In response, police officers on duty argued before the Supreme Court that the policy was not only “very regressive, but completely contrary to the record and the statistics shown.”

Ms Narayani said the physical training of the cadets was as rigorous as that of the men.

“Once we go into our training, there is no discrimination like this: ‘OK, you are a woman, so you will have an excuse to do it,’” she said.

Wednesday’s court ruling stemmed from a public interest dispute, unrelated to a specific plaintiff, which had been filed with the Indian Supreme Court. The lawsuit argued that not allowing women to take the academy entrance exam violated India’s constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.

The court gave its consent in an earlier ruling, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said in early September that it would open the academy to women.

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“Deliberate planning and meticulous preparation are required to ensure a smooth integration and flawless training of these candidates,” wrote Shantanu Sharma, an official in the Ministry of Defense and Indian Navy Captain, in an affidavit filed with Supreme Court this week.

Wednesday’s decision sets the timetable. This week, the government said women would be eligible to take the defense academy exams from May 2022. But the court insisted the process begin in November, when the entrance exams for the defense academy. defense academy should take place.

The judges said the armed forces, well trained to respond quickly to emergencies, should be able to implement the decision sooner.

Ms. Bala, who now works as a security consultant in northeast Shillong City, hailed the court ruling as a “landmark judgment.”

A veteran of the military’s logistics branch assignments along India’s borders with China, Pakistan and Bhutan, Ms. Bala said the disparity in the length of commissions for men and women still weighed on her .

“You have to give them a level playing field for succession,” she said.

Nithi CJ, 34, a risk management consultant who served in the Indian Army’s intelligence corps, said admission to the Indian Defense Academy, based in Pune, in central India India, brings women closer to their combat preparation.

“Now the ball is in our court,” she said, “and it’s up to the aspiring women to prove their worth. “