Women In

by Akshata Sulebhavi

Women In Defence

Early in the morning, on the twenty-sixth of February 2010, Kabul woke up to a deafening noise — a huge blast and continuous loud gunfire, bullets raining from the sky, and people screaming and trying to escape the havoc that the combined suicide bombing and shooting attack had created. Nineteen people died, and at least thirty six were injured. The army officials later rescued many¹.

Reading the above lines, the picture that naturally comes to mind is that of an army of young and agile men fighting back with state-of-the-art guns to rescue civilians. But this time, the individual who actually saved nineteen lives during the attack was a woman. Lieutenant Colonel Mitali Madhumita (then Major) fought bravely and saved many lives even though she had been posted in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a part of the army’s English Language Training program at the Army Education Corps. Owing to restricted transportation post bombing, Madhumita had to run to the site of attack. To her horror, she found most of her colleagues at the Indian Embassy injured. Even though she had no arms, ammunition, or comrades to fight alongside her, she fearlessly adhered to her duty to rescue people. She saved as many as 19 lives, including seven Indians, trapped under the debris, and ensured medical help was provided to those in need².

For this sheer display of grit and valor beyond the call of duty, Major Madhumita was conferred with the Sena Medal for Gallantry, becoming the first-ever woman recipient of a gallantry award. Till date, she continues to remain the only woman to have received it.

Since the very beginning, women’s participation in the armed forces has been astonishingly low. Even in the 21st century, where women have spread their reach across multiple sectors, women contribute a very small fraction in the country’s defence. In 2014, the Indian Air Force had 8.5% women, Indian Navy 2.8% women, and the Indian Army 3% women. The numbers have been going up at a slow pace, and the most recent statistics from 2018 show that the Indian Air Force had 13.09% women, the Indian Navy 6%, and the Indian Army 3.80%³. But, despite the small numbers that make up the contribution of women to the defence sector, the women who do hold positions in the army have exhibited tremendous dedication and bravery every time the country needed them.

In the words of India’s first female Air Marshal, Dr. Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, “Back then, no boy came back home after a war. That was the saddest part of my life — to see my people leaving and never coming back. I immediately told my father that I want to join the Indian Army.” Dr. Bandopadhyay joined the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1968. She is the second woman in the Indian armed forces to be promoted to a three-star rank and to be conferred with the highest degree of armed forces awards, including the Param Vishisht Seva, Ati Vishisht and Vishisht Seva Medals. After retiring, she continued to give medical and education services to underprivileged children which led the Indian Government to award her India’s highest civilian honor — the Padma Shri⁴. Notably, Bandopadhyay is the first defence officer to receive a civilian award in India as armed forces are not eligible for civilian honors.

Another example of a woman who defied conventional norms and performed extraordinarily as a part of the army is that of Major Divya Ajith Kumar. Being the first lady cadet to be awarded the coveted ‘Sword of Honour’, her career in the army has been an illustrious one⁵. When Major Kumar was asked about gender equality in the armed forces, she said- “Gender equality in the Indian Army is still at its nascent stage. The army started recruiting women only in 1992. Until then, they weren’t sure about the roles to assign to women.” To this she also added, “But this mindset is slowly changing. Also, as women, we have proved that we can do what men can and do it well. Although the Indian Army is yet to give us a permanent commission, there is a change in the institution’s thinking about women and their contribution.”

As Major Divya Kumar mentioned, the general mindset of people in the armed forces has been evolving with time. But this mindset evolution would only help in bringing a significant change in the participation numbers when young and aspiring women are made aware of the possibility of them being a part of the country’s defence. Indian high school girls are hardly ever seen preparing for the Combined Defence Services Examination (CDSE) which is the preliminary examination that enables one to train further in order to be a part of the Indian Armed Forces.

A major reason behind this imbalance, alongside the lack of knowledge and exposure in young girls, is the preconceived notion that females, in general, shouldn’t take up physically challenging roles as their careers. Although the choice remains entirely personal, army officials like Mitali Madhumita, Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, and Divya Ajith Kumar, among many other courageous women, have proven that no role is physically challenging enough to stop a woman from pursuing it, if she truly wants to.

Another myth is that all roles in the armed forces are physically challenging. The truth is that there are numerous ways in which one can contribute to the defence sector. There is a massive requirement of medical professionals, scientists, communication operators, aviation experts, marine engineers, and legal experts in the armed forces⁶. Many of these roles do not require extreme physical abilities and hence are well-suited even for those who wish to contribute in a less physically challenging manner.

As facts and statistics portray, there exists an immense disparity in what women are perceived to be capable of achieving, to what they actually do when given the chance. The journey to successfully bridging this gap starts with celebrating the achievements of the women already in the defence. It is also equally important to educate ourselves and all young and aspiring girls about the opportunities that the defence sector has to offer. The glory that comes with being a defence official, the pride, patriotism, and the immense respect and regard that one gains from such a tenure is definitely something more women deserve. This Independence Day, let’s celebrate the fighting spirit that women are born with, and the women who take this spirit to greater heights by contributing to safeguarding their countrymen.



[2]: https://www.ndtv.com/video/exclusive/india-decides-9/major-mitali-first-woman-officer-to-get-gallantry-award-207965

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Indian_Armed_Forces

[4]: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/sunday-chronicle/cover-story/010420/woman-of-many-heights.html

[5]: https://www.parentcircle.com/article/the-biggest-perk-is-wearing-the-uniform-every-day-major-divya-ajith-kumar/

[6]: https://apply.army.mod.uk/roles

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