India has announced that women will be allowed to occupy combat roles in all sections of its army, navy and air force, indicating a radical move to gender parity in one of the world’s most-male dominated professions.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee announced the move on Tuesday while addressing both houses of the parliament before the budget session, saying that the government would in the future recruit women for fighting roles in India’s armed forces.
India, which has one of the largest armies in the world, has previously resisted such a move, citing concerns over women’s vulnerability if captured and over their physical and mental ability to cope with the stress of frontline deployments.
“My government has approved the induction of women as short service commission officers and as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force. In the future, my government will induct women in all the fighter streams of our armed forces,” Mukherjee said.
“In our country ‘Shakti’, which means power, is the manifestation of female energy. This Shakti defines our strength,” he added.
While most countries employ women in various roles in their armed forces, only a handful – including Australia, Germany, Israel and the United States – have allowed them to take on combat or fighting roles.
India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the armed forces in 1992, yet only 2.5 percent of its more than one million personnel are female – most of them administrators, intelligence officers, doctors, nurses or dentists.
In October, the government took the first steps towards bringing women into fighting roles and approved plans by the Indian Air Force for women pilots to fly warplanes from June 2017 on a three-year experimental basis.
Women’s rights activists welcomed the president’s remarks but said that bringing real gender parity into the armed forces would be a slow process.