Page last updated at 21:48 GMT, Tuesday, 9 May 2006 22:48 UK

Women in the line of fire

By Anna Browning
BBC News

Woman in the Army
Women are banned from the Royal Marines and infantry, among others

The death of the first UK servicewoman killed in action overseas since World War II has drawn public attention to the increasing number of women now in the armed forces.

But do they have a real role to play in a war zone, or are they there for the sake of political correctness?

Of five military personnel who died in a helicopter crash in Basra at the weekend, it was the face of Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill which dominated the front pages - for the simple reason she was a woman.

While 9% of the British armed forces are now women, it appears - for the press at least - the death of a woman in the field has sparked unease.

But as Iraq all too brutally illustrates, modern warfare means the frontline in today's war zone is everywhere.

So while women in the UK forces are still kept out of land combat posts, there was a certain inevitability that sooner or later a female name would be added to the list of the dead.

So why are so many shocked?

'Man's world'

Since 1998 women have been able to serve in 73% of posts in the Royal Navy, 70% of posts in the Army and 96% of posts in the RAF.

The turning point was 1994, when the Navy first allowed women at sea.

Even so, according to Christopher Dandeker, professor of military sociology at King's College, London, our perception of the military is still that it is largely a man's world.

A woman carrying out such a "masculine" job is perceived as an exception.

Sarah Mulvihill
Sarah Mulvihill has been praised as a "dedicated officer"

During World War II, women played a major role in the forces, many exposed to extreme danger. In Stalinist Russia, women were involved in close combat - as they were in Israel in the 1948 War.

But as soon both wars ended, so did the policy.

However, since the 1990s, women have become indispensable to the armed forces.

Women are good at multi-skilling, and have excelled in IT and more specifically communications.

And, says Prof Dandeker, he would be very surprised if women were not part of the intelligence community acquiring information in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, given recruitment shortages across the armed forces, they are needed more than ever.

Prof Dandeker said: "It would be very difficult for the Royal Navy to be at sea at all without women."

What the death of Flt Lt Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill has done is "turn up the volume" and given particular resonance to questions we may already have about the war in Iraq.

Put simply, is this the sort of sacrifice we are happy to go along with?

Women serving in the armed forces in World War II
Women played key roles in the armed forces during WWII

Former BBC chief correspondent Kate Adie, author of Corsets to Camouflage: Women and War, says that whatever jobs women are now doing in the armed forces, they are in the line of fire - and the public will have to get used to the idea.

"It is inevitable these days, they accept it, and it's a matter now of public acceptance of that role," she said.

"There have been endless studies about just how far women can integrate in the sense of physical strength. What they are still kept out of is what you can call, technically, close combat - that's known as getting stuck in with a bayonet, blokes' fighting in other words.

"Because one of the arguments is that the enemy doesn't have any thoughts about gender difference and isn't going to field a group of maybe weaker women. You are up against the toughest and have to be the toughest.

"So at the moment, that stands. But women are going to be there in all the other support roles and carrying guns - and you are trained in the Army to shoot-to-kill.

"You take on that responsibility and you know that there is a possibility that you may receive fire."

'Demanding life'

According to Prof Dandeker, the pressures of military life are no different for men or women.

It is 24 hours, seven days a week where they work under a "contract of unlimited liability", they have a duty to put their lives on the line, he says.

"That's what makes military life very different. You have to put yourself very much second to team effort. It is a tough and demanding life."

Other arguments against women on the frontline have included the assertion that troops would be reluctant to leave a wounded female on the battlefield.

But Prof Dandeker dismisses this as purely a male-female issue.

During the Falklands War, for example, questions were asked about whether the so-called "buddy effect" had seen too many troops risk their lives to save a comrade.

"It is a matter of training," he said. "Once people join the service, they learn to put the inclination about looking after wounded behind them."

Even so, life for a woman in the military is not necessarily an easy one.

In 2005, the then Defence Secretary John Reid admitted there was "significant sexual harassment" in the armed forces.

But at the end of the day, says Prof Dandeker, "it is a macho culture and women have to cope with that".

"You have to be tough with a good sense of humour to be a woman in the military."



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