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Women in combat: More than a dozen nations already doing it

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Posted at 2:58 PM, Aug 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-20 14:58:42-04

Two years after the Pentagon said it would open combat positions to women, two female soldiers are poised to make history by graduating Friday from United States Army Ranger school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Around the world, at least 16 industrialized countries — mostly U.S. allies — allow women in combat roles. Some have been doing it for more than a decade.

Many U.S. military leaders remind us that, as a practical matter, women have been in combat since September 11, 2001 – regardless of their job title. At least 88 women in the U.S. military have died since then, many in Iraq and Afghanistan, where traditional front lines often don’t exist.

Military policies are changing to catch up to that reality. In addition to the first two women to complete the Army’s Ranger training, the Navy said this week that SEAL teams will open their ranks to women who can pass SEAL training.

One of the most comprehensive examinations of women in combat around the globe was published in 2009 in the United Kingdom for the Ministry of Defense. The UK does not allow women in close combat.

So what’s it like for military women in other countries? Here’s a look at some countries that allow women in combat roles:

Canada: Canada’s military is about 85% men, but women have been allowed in combat since 1989. Women comprise close to 15% of the Canadian fighting force — its regular force and primary reserves. The number of women in combat roles remains small and, according to the UK study, Canadian research suggests women are more likely to serve in supportive rather than operational roles.

Romania: Romania’s volunteer force employs women in combat positions. The country has sent close to 60 women to Iraq in close combat roles. In Afghanistan, women represent nearly 7% of those serving in combat jobs. The country reports that its had no problems with operational performance related to integrating genders across the armed forces.

France: In France, although women can serve in combat and overall women represent about 19% of all French military personnel, very few women actually serve on the front lines. UK researchers, noting French research from 2006, said 1.7% of women are combat infantry soldiers.

Germany: In Germany, women began joining combat units in 2001 after the European Court of Justice ruled that preventing women from such jobs was against gender equality principles. Women can choose any military career they want, including elite groups such as marine commandos. The number of women in the German armed forces tripled between 2001 and 2014, with about 800 women in combat units, including many who have served in the Afghanistan war.

Denmark: Women have been allowed in all ranks in the Danish military since 1998. Women perform as well as men in land combat roles, according to some Danish research, and both genders are required to meet the same physical standards in jobs that are more physically demanding. Danish women have served in combat in Afghanistan.

Israel: Women have been allowed in close combat roles since the 1990s, and women are eligible for 90% of all defense roles.

The Netherlands: Women are not allowed in the Marine Corps or Submarine Service, but can apply for other combat ready positions. But the number of women who go for combat roles is not large. Men tend to serve those roles twice as often as women. The UK study that examined women in foreign fighting forces reported that the Netherlands armed forces benefit from teams comprised of men and women when it comes to crisis-response operations and peacekeeping missions.

New Zealand: Women have been allowed since 2001 in every job in the armed forces, including the infantry. But that openness hasn’t translated into a high number of women in combat roles. As of May 2004, there were nine female gunners, three women rifle operators and one female field engineer, the UK study said.

Poland: Women are allowed in all services, and since 2004, the nation has required women with college nursing or veterinary degrees to register for compulsory military service. But that is a lot of change in a relatively short amount of time. It wasn’t until 1999 that women were accepted into military schools and not until 2003 did female graduates complete four-year training at those schools and assume posts.

Sweden: Since 1989 there have been no gender restrictions in the Swedish military, according the UK study. Swedes say having women in combat roles, particularly those who’ve served in Afghanistan, has been positive for operations. Swedish military women work well with local Afghan women, the study noted, and have been able to lead units to discover makeshift bombs before they exploded and locate suicide bombers before they could strike.

Australia: The country opened combat positions to women in September 2011, allowing them join special operations units in Afghanistan and the general infantry and armored units. Women are also allowed to become naval divers. Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the first woman in that position, backed the move. “I have a view that men and women are equal,” she told the Australian, a local news outlet, in April 2011. “A few years ago I heard [defense chief General] Peter Cosgrove say that men and women should have an equal right to fight and die for their country. I think he is right about that.”

As of June 2014, 63 Australian women had signed up for front-line roles, the Guardian reported.