x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Warfare is no longer a male prerogative

Military says female soldiers are fine, but civilians have doubts.

TORONTO // On May 17, 2006, in a firefight with Afghan Taliban insurgents, Canadian forces lost an artillery officer hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.

She was Capt Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian woman to be killed in action since her country's 1989 decision to admit women soldiers into combat. For a nation already divided about participating in the US-led Afghanistan war, Goddard's death was a particular shock, and two more Canadian women have since died in combat.

Yet Canada remains in the small group of countries - including Israel, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and now the US - that have opened their fighting ranks to female soldiers.

Canada's change did not come easily. "There was heated discussion among my peers whether we should be there," in combat, said Lt Col Jennie Carignan, who enlisted in 1986.

But the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms made it inevitable, and the armed forces began a series of trials. However, the initial result was not encouraging for champions of full equality. The trials indicated that almost half the male rank and file viewed their female counterparts as "women first, tradespersons second, and soldiers never". It was feared unit cohesion and morale would suffer.

Then a 1989 ruling by Canada's Human Rights Commission gave women the right to all combat roles except on submarines. The submarine ban fell three years later.

The military says 2.4 per cent of personnel in combat units are women - 145 officers and 209 enlisted soldiers. Overall, 9,348 women serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, 14 per cent of all personnel.

Officers and enlisted soldiers, male and female, insist they have no problem with the change. But some in the civilian sector disagree with the principle.

While supportive of women serving in the military, columnist Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, a Toronto daily, wrote after the US decision: "The sheer physical demands of war ... mean that fighting capability and performance are simply not compatible with gender equality."

Gwen Landolt of REAL Women Canada, a socially conservative advocacy group, said: "It was a politically correct decision. The problem is women are just not equal physically, they can't perform in combat to the same degree as men can ..."

But in 2003, Lt Col Carignan became the first woman to hold deputy command of a combat unit, and was Task Force Kandahar's senior combat engineer in 2009.

Capt Ashley Collette, during her 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, led a 50-strong all-male infantry unit. She had close calls with roadside bombs, and two of her soldiers were injured. Now 28, she received the Medal of Military Valour, Canada's third-highest military honour, for her leadership in the Panjwaii district near Kandahar - the district where Goddard died.

"My leadership was never questioned," she said.