April 27, 2015

Women conscripts?

Estonian Defence Forces

A discussion about compulsory military service for women arose before the last Parliamentary elections in Estonia. The new coalition agreement that recently took effect does not mention conscription as an obligation but does promise to encourage greater voluntary participation by women. Indeed, why not. Still, we should ask ourselves whether we are ready for it. How does our society view it? Are young women ready for conscription, physically and mentally? What do we have to learn from other countries and what is the purpose for making military service compulsory for females?

Norway is the first NATO country to establish compulsory military service for women. Why? Norway is aiming to offer women – who make up half of the population – equal opportunity to men and seeking to harness women’s potential in every field, including the military. Norway has also attempted to increase the share of women as top executives and government officials. The pros and cons of gender quotas are beyond the scope of this discussion but the fact remains that today women’s role in political leadership and executive positions in Norway has grown significantly – MPs are 39.6% women and by law, at least 40% of executive board members must be women. Likewise, the objective of establishing compulsory military service in Norway is to find the best possible eligible candidates for active duty positions, regardless of gender. Besides, conscription is one way to debunk stereotypes and encouraging young people – men and women – get to know one another better and respect each other by living, studying and training together. As to the actual process of compulsory female military service, the kinds of problems that will arise and Norway’s ability to get women involved in the Defence Forces, time will tell. The objective for 2020 is to increase the share of women in the Defence Forces to 20%, and there is already talk of a 50% future target.
Estonia currently has 325 women in active duty. Each year, up to 30 women are accepted voluntarily into military service on an equal footing with the men. These women account for about 1% of the total number of those called up. Statistics indicate that most women who enter conscription later seek a discharge or fail to opt for a career in the military service. Why? We don’t currently know.
But what are the general attitudes in society? A survey conducted among active-duty and contractual service members in 2015 showed that only 20% of respondents favoured compulsory military service for women. A study conducted by sociologist Juhan Kivirähk in 2013 among students graduating from secondary school also found that scant few respondents supported compulsory military service for girls, yet respondents predominantly indicated support for opening up a path for women to undergo voluntary military service. An important role in this regard is undoubtedly the availability of a national defence subject in schools. Today the subject is mainly optional and depends on specific schools, just as the quality of the subject depends on the specific teacher.
The role and contribution of women in the military field is a topic that sparks emotional discussion, and this is the case elsewhere in the world, too. Research and discussion about women’s opportunities, contribution and capabilities continue. At a time when US and Canadian specialists are sharing experiences with regard to the load and judiciousness of physical tests, Norway is trying to debunk myths and prove that women can withstand equal challenges as men, in some cases even greater difficulties. Yet there is consensus on one point: active duty personnel should be chosen on the basis of positions, not general test performance, and that social, cultural and societal factors are as important as physical aspects.
In which direction will we steer our small state? What are our objectives, level of readiness and views? These are the questions that have to be answered before big decisions are made.

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