2.4.1 Gender

It may be noted that where there are military forces, males always participate; in almost all countries today females are also to be found in the military. So strong are presuppositions in this area, that it seems almost facetious to make the logical parallel that in no case are the military forces the exclusive preserve of females.[1] Such a rare exception were the semi-mythical Amazons documented by Herodotus that the name has stuck, and has been applied to female warriors right through the ages. [2]

Iran, in its initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child,[3] stated that girls were exempt from military service altogether, the implication being that they were unable to join even if they wanted to. In Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia no reference to female members of the armed forces has been traced. In the conflicts of recent years Iraq and Afghanistan stand out for the minimal evidence of (local) female involvement. But even in the Gulf region, a UNDP report[4] apparently indicates that the United Arab Emirates have been encouraging women to join the military. However precise roles which they may perform are usually restricted, especially in order to exclude front-line combat duties. In only three instances, Eritrea, Israel, and Tunisia (from the beginning of 2003) is there evidence that obligatory military service is in practice required of females, although legislation envisaging this exists, but does not seem to be enforced, in a handful of other countries: Benin, China, Libya and Sudan. In Poland NATO sources[5] reveal that although compulsory basic military service applies only to men, liability for compulsory military service applies also to women aged 18 to 40 who have skills and/or qualifications useful in the armed forces. Women in El Salvador have been theoretically liable for compulsory military service since 1994, although they are not required to serve in combat.

In Sweden, military service is a rare exception to sex discrimination laws. Article 16 of the 1975 Constitution states: ‘No Act of law or other statutory instrument may entail the discrimination of any citizen on grounds of sex unless the relevant provision forms part of efforts to bring about equality between men and women or relates to compulsory military service or any corresponding compulsory national service.’ Even so, in 2000, a government commission proposed making military service compulsory for women. The idea has been aired in the USA as well; the Rangel Bill[6] brought forward in 2003, proposed the reintroduction of the draft with women included.

Restrictions on women's deployment are also being eroded. Australia, for instance, announced in August 2005 that it is to permit the deployment of women in front-line units, although they would still be limited to support roles, not permitted in direct combat.[7]

In 1999, women were estimated to represent about 35% of the Eritrean forces.[8] The demobilisation agreed upon in the UN-brokered peace accord of 12th December 2000 had been intended to include the majority of the women,[9] but with the situation along the border remaining tense, it does not appear that any substantial steps towards demobilisation occurred until March 2004. It is interesting to note that one informant[10] reports that some girls had reported for national service of their own free will and before reaching the call-up age, having run away from home. This vision of military enlistment as a road to feminine emancipation has been noted elsewhere in armed opposition groups which employ considerable numbers of girl fighters[11] and, like the use of females in the front line itself, may represent a tradition directly inherited from the roots of Eritrean independence in the opposition forces in the thirty-year civil war in Ethiopia: Unlike their counterparts in the (government) army, women in the (oppositon) force usually assumed combat duties. In fact some are said to be among the best fighters. Not an insignificant number of them were posted in commanding positions within the force.[12]

The same girl's testimony alleges that, despite being under the official recruitment age, such volunteers were not released when traced by their parents, even when the girls themselves had changed their minds. She, as well as many others, reports that in practice the anticipated emancipation was an all-too-familiar illusion. Service for women at the front line was very often a punishment for withholding sexual favours. The only route to self betterment was to succeed in obtaining a favoured position as concubine and housekeeper to an influential officer. If any female officers exist in the Eritrean army, this girl had not come across them.

  • [1] The universal gendering of war pages 10 - 22 in Goldstein, J. S., War and Gender Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • [2] e.g. Brett, R. and Specht, I. Young soldiers: Why they choose to fight, Lynne Riener, (Boulder, Colorado) 2004, page 86
  • [3] UN Document Number CRC/C/41/Add.5, 23 July 1998
  • [4] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [5] www.nato.int/ims/2001/win/poland.htm
  • [6] HR163
  • [7] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/asia-pacific/4172538.stm, 22nd August 2005
  • [8] Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [9] US Department of State, 2004
  • [10] Bisrat Habte Micael in Connection eV Germany, War Resisters International and Eritrean Anti-Militarist Initiative, Eritrea: Conscientious Objection and Desertion WRI, London, 2005.
  • [11] See for example Brett, R. and Specht, I. Young soldiers: Why they choose to fight, Lynne Riener, (Boulder, Colorado) 2004, pages 88 - 91; Keairns, Y.E. The voices of girl child soldiers: Sri Lanka and The voices of girl child soldiers: Philippines, both published by Quaker United Nations Office, New York and Geneva, 2005.
  • [12] Ethiopian case study, quoted by Brett, R. and McCallin, M. (1998), Children: the invisible soldiers (2nd edition), Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children), Stockholm, 1998, page 83