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No smooth sailing: Deployment of women on warships may soon be allowed, but challenges still remain

The Indian Navy is gearing up to induct more women in its fold, and will soon allow them to take up various roles on a warship, including that of a sailor. During the Naval Commanders Conference in New Delhi in November 2018, the Indian Navy had announced that the issue of deployment of women on warships, which has been a long-pending demand, might turn into reality sooner than expected with defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman urging the navy to give impetus to the enrollment of women.

Responding to Sitharaman at the conference, navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had said: "Besides sailor rank, the inclusion of women in sea-going cadre is also being looked at in near future, not immediately, The Week reported.

On Tuesday, at an event marking the arrival of the French Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group at Goa for the Varuna bilateral naval exercise on Tuesday, the Indian Navy gave the assurance again, as reported by The Times of India.

Women in Indian armed forces

In allowing women to take charge of pivotal frontline roles, the Indian Navy might set a new precedent in the history of the Indian armed forces. The Indian Army has only recently decided to induct women as soldiers or jawans, and 800 of them are expected to be recruited for the Corps of Military Police. The recruitment of women jawans in the army will take place in a phased manner with the selection and training of 52 candidates every year, the army had informed.

In 2018, the Indian Air Force inducted three women as fighter pilots on an experimental basis. Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh created history when the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar commissioned them as India's first women fighter pilots in June 2018. The government had in 2015 approved the induction of women as fighter pilots in IAF, making it the first service among the armed force in India to put women in combat roles.

 No smooth sailing: Deployment of women on warships may soon be allowed, but challenges still remain

Women cadets who were inducted into the Indian Navy in 2017. PTI

The navy has so far deployed women officers in eight branches, including education, law, and naval constructions — where women have been given permanent commission as non-sea going cadre.

The navy also has a deployment of 70 women officers as observers or tactical operators on the maritime patrol aircrafts Boeing P-8I and IL-38, which are armed, and it is considered as a combat role. For the deployment of women at sea, future warships are being modified with "suitable facilities" to accommodate women crew onboard, the navy says.

Navy to upgrade ships to accommodate women onboard

Naval officials have said that the defence ministry has given a strong push for the induction of women on board ships and bilateral naval exercises with foreign navies especially, France, US, British and Australia. “In the French navy, they have a female crew of almost 15 percent on board,” said western fleet commander Rear Admiral Sanjay Jasjit Singh. “These are also issues in our interaction with the French navy and other navies from where we will have takeaways,” Singh hoped that it was just a matter of time before women officers would be allowed to serve on board frontline warships.

Newer vessels that are being built for the Indian Navy are being designed and constructed with berthing facilities that cater to women officers. France has opened up its Navy for women to serve on warships and submarines. “This will factor in our own studies and planning,” Singh said.

Presently, women officers are being inducted into the Law, Logistics, ATC, Observers (Aviation), Naval Architecture and Education Branch as Short Service Commission officers. However, the government has now approved Permanent Commission for women in Law, Education, and Naval Architecture cadre.

The service conditions in navy are the same for men and women officers. Women officers undergo the same training as men and they are expected to maintain the same high standards of appearance as men. Also, no special status is conferred to women candidates and they compete with Short Service male candidates on an open merit system.

However, on the issue of not allowing women to be in sea, the navy says that since life on board ships is "very tough" and "puts a different kind of stress and strain on an individual", presently, the existing design of ships does not offer the necessary facilities for women to live onboard for long durations and contribute in war-fighting efforts.

In a March 2017, in an interview with The Hindu, Admiral Sunil Lanba had said: “We have identified ships on which (billeting) facilities are available for women officers and are working on the modalities of their induction on board ships. We need some minimum numbers (of women) on each ship. We are also going to do a survey and ask them if they want to serve on board ships. And then, we will take a call and take this proposal forward."

Meanwhile, a study to examine ways to induct women sailors in the Navy has been underway for some time and new ships under construction are being designed to accommodate women. “To start inducting women on ships, which stay away at sea for months, the critical mass is essential,” The Print quoted a naval officer as saying.

“Unless women, in good numbers, are ready to serve in ships, there would be no homogeneity and it would be difficult for women to serve in ships. The entire ecosystem has to be ready before women are inducted.”

“There may be a political will,” the officer said, “but at this point, infrastructure is not adequate.”

INS Tarini- a breakthrough

In May 2018, a six-woman crew of the INSV Tarini became the first Indian all-woman crew to successfully circumnavigate the globe.

The expedition, which was was flagged off from the INS Mandovi boat pool in Goa on 10 September, 2017, had six women officers — Lieutenant Commander S Vijaya Devi, Lieutenant Commander P Swathi, Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal, Lieutenant Payal Gupta and Lieutenant Commander Aishwarya Boddapati — who had trained under Captain Dilip Donde, the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo in 2009-2010

The expedition was sailed in six legs, with stopovers at the Fremantle (Australia), Lyttleton (New Zealand), Port Stanley (Falkland Islands), Cape Town (South Africa) and Mauritius over a period of 254 days.

On 21 May 2018, the INSV Tarini returned to Indian shores in Goa after braving treacherous seas and displaying exemplary courage. The one-of-its-kind mission witnessed several gut-wrenching moments like when in January the INSV Tarini negotiated the choppy waters off the Cape Horn, off the southern tip of South America, often dubbed as 'the graveyard of ships' owing to the dangerous sea conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Lt Commander Pratibha told PTI that it is not that women don't want to join the navy, but it is just that they are not really aware what all opportunities are available in the navy for women. "Women, especially in the northern part of the country, think that navy is only about sailing and being on board a ship for six months... but there are a lot of different branches which the navy offers. For example, I am an air traffic controller. "Then there are education officers, logistics officers, there are medical officers, there are naval constructors, technical officers, there are pilots and there are observers. Variety and scopes are many, but there is lack of awareness, especially in this region of India," Jamwal, who hails from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, said.

An equal sea for all?

In 2016, Sandhya Suri, one of Indian Navy’s first women officers who served on a warship, had said in an interview to Livemint that her greatest challenge in the navy “was to fight to be considered a uniformed military personnel and not a woman”. “I also don’t believe that women should be kept out of ships. Just play fair and don’t draw out privileges,” Suri remarked.

When Sandhya Suri joined the Navy in 1994, there were just two women in her ship, which had 250 men including officers and sailors. Suri, who served as a Logistics Officer on a warship in the days when women were still allowed on these, knew what she was getting into. She has since battled to not let her gender be brought into discussions in meetings and official addresses.

In 2017, the Indian Navy was mired in controversy when it decided to discharge a serving sailor, who underwent gender reassignment surgery because “females cannot work in defence services as soldiers." In January 2018, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the central government and the navy to “showcause why the sailor’s plea against dismissal from service be not admitted". The navy had told the court that even though there was no job in the naval force for the sailor, it could facilitate her to get employed in a private company.

Another major constraint cited to be delaying women's entry into the sea is the space on a ship. A former naval officer told Mint that on a ship, everyone has just a bunk size space for themselves and partitioning is done to optimise whatever space is available.

Overseas examples

The Journal of Marine Medical Society in an article had listed out several physical, psychological and social issues that could be unique to women combatants. “The consequences of inserting a few women in an almost entirely male preserve, in cramped quarters, in inhospitable terrain, isolated from civilization, cannot even be imagined at this point in time in India,” it said.

Moreover, a recent Reuters report suggested that Russian female naval cadets are also unlikely to step into a combat role in a battleship anytime soon.

However, the navies of Israel and the US offer the support structure and ecosystem for women to serve in ships.

Many women have served in the US Navy for over a century in various roles including combat and also served during war. It was on 7 March 1994, that the US Navy issued the first orders for women to be assigned aboard a combatant ship, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). Today, women serve in every rank from seaman to admiral and in every job from naval aviator to a deep-sea diver.

In fact, in July 1994, policy changes were made expanding the number of assignments available to women in the US Navy. For instance, a repeal of the combat exclusion law gave women the opportunity to serve on surface combatant ships but, it still excluded assignments for women to serve on board submarines as there had been concern about bringing women onto submarines due to living quarters offering little privacy, again bringing to fore the space constraint issue.

However, in October 2009, the Secretary of the US Navy announced that he and the Chief of Naval Operations were moving aggressively to change the policy. Reasons for the decision included the fact that larger SSGN and SSBN submarines were inducted in their fleet which had more available space and could accommodate female officers with little or no modification. In February 2010, the Secretary of Defense approved the proposed policy and signed letters formally notifying Congress of the intended change. After receiving no objection, the Department of the US Navy officially announced on 29 April 2010, that it had authorised women to serve on board submarines moving forward.

The first group of US female submariners completed nuclear power school and officially reported on board two ballistic and two guided missile submarines in November 2011.

Back in India, the Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat in 2018 spoke at length about why the Indian Army is not ready for women combat officers citing various reasons such as their absence during maternity leave, creating "ruckus" if denied so, and accusing jawans of peeping while they change clothes while being posted at the frontline. His reactions draw considerable ire and many termed them as deeply misogynist. However, with the Indian Navy's recent reassurances, it seems there may be hope for women aiming to be battlefield-ready.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 21:32:37 IST