Page last updated at 14:33 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 15:33 UK

Women in the British armed forces

By Victoria Bone
BBC News

Corporal Sarah Bryant
Sarah Bryant was the first female British soldier to die in Afghanistan
The death of Cpl Sarah Bryant in Afghanistan has brought the subject of women in the military to the fore.

In total, there are 187,060 members of the British armed forces, and 9.4% of them - some 17,620 - are female.

Of those women, 3,760 are officers.

The Ministry of Defence describes the contribution of all women as "essential", and says recent awards of medals for gallantry to women during operational deployments show they are serving in more demanding circumstances than ever before.

The MoD is unable to say exactly how many women are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But some reports suggest about a fifth of the 8,000 service personnel in Afghanistan are female, even though they make up just a tenth of total military numbers.

An MoD spokesman said women do take on many key - and crucially, frontline - roles.

"Women can be employed anywhere and are involved in every operation currently going on," a spokesman said.

"What we often see is a misconception that women can't do frontline roles. They can.

"What they can't do, and it's a military phrase, is any specialisation where 'the primary duty is to close with or kill the enemy'.

"That effectively means close combat, hand-to-hand even, or other very close forms of fighting."

Some exclusions

Across the forces, the frontline roles women do take on are many and varied.

In the RAF, 96% of all jobs are open to women
In the Royal Navy, the figure is 71%
In the Army, it is 67%
14.7% of RAF officers are female, compared to 9.4% in the Navy and 11.3% in the Army

Some work in policing, as medical and media staff, or as interpreters.

Other are involved in Civil-Military Co-operation, providing liaison between the armed forces and civilian agencies, like charities, working in theatre.

Women are excluded from joining the Royal Marines General Service as Commandos, and cannot take on combat roles in the Household Cavalry, Royal Armoured Corps, Infantry and the Royal Air Force Regiment.

They can still join these units, but must play administrative and support roles.

However, the nature of modern warfare means that in Afghanistan the front line effectively starts just outside base camp.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said the Taleban - and insurgents in Iraq before them - were increasingly using suicide bombs and roadside devices rather than engaging in battlefield combat.

This inevitably puts troops - women among them - in greater danger every day, regardless of their specific role or proximity to any traditional front line.

Woman soldier in Iraq (pic: Bhasker Solanki)
Woman are also serving on the front line in Iraq

Cultural reasons

Overall, the RAF offers the most opportunities to women, with 96% of all jobs open to them.

The figures are lower for the other forces. In the Royal Navy, 71% of jobs are open to both genders and in the Army it is 67%.

In the RAF, 14.7% of officers are female, compared to 9.4% in the Navy and 11.3% in the Army.

The MoD said: "The only time women might not serve would be if there was a conflict in a country like Saudi Arabia for reasons of cultural sensitivity."

Female military personnel are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave, 39 of them paid, and they are not considered for deployment within six months of giving birth, unless they volunteer.

Where both parents in a family are in the military, all efforts are made not to deploy them at the same time.

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