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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 March 2007, 03:39 GMT 04:39 UK
Women on the military frontline
servicewomen
Gender barriers came down in 1990s
Women now make up almost one in 10 of Britain's military personnel.

While they had served in a number of important roles since World War II, it was only in the early 1990s that the traditional gender barriers began to come down.

The separate branches of the military for women - the Wrens for the navy and Wracs for the army - were scrapped.

Out went differences like separate ranks and even different coloured badges for women who had served alongside the navy.

In came the chance for women to take on new roles from serving on ships at sea to flying RAF fighter jets or army helicopters.

Wider role

The number of roles they could take on was expanded again in 1997 and 71% of posts in the navy and army are now open to women, alongside 96% of jobs in the RAF.

WOMEN IN UNIFORM
Woman soldier
Army strength 106,420 including 8,270 women
Navy strength 39,190 including 3,680 women
RAF strength 46,180 including 5,940 women

A decision by Whitehall also meant women no longer had to resign from the forces when they became pregnant.

Now for the first time the military had to consider the implications of committing not just women - but as the case of Faye Turney has shown - sending mothers into harm's way.

The military claims to have opposition within its own ranks to women having a wider role.

But insiders accept female casualties continue to grab headlines.

"That's a natural human reaction but I don't think we can let it change the way we do business," said one senior officer. "It has a public effect. I don't think it has what you can call a military effect."

Officially, women are still barred from roles where the main job is "to close with and kill the enemy".

That means they do not serve in frontline tasks with the infantry, Royal Marine Commandos or RAF Regiment.

You will not find a woman soldier in a tank either - though that is also in part due to the difficulties of having people eat, work, sleep and more in such a confined space.

The need to provide the sexes with separate living accommodation also means that while all the Royal Navy's surface ships are capable of carrying women, not all of them do at any one time.

RAF navigator
96% of jobs in the RAF are open to women
Ministry of Defence

Those responsible for the process, known as drafting, for example have to find enough women of similar rank to fill a shared living space - an easy enough task for officers who might be expected to share two to a cabin but more problematic for junior sailors who could be accommodated 12 to a mess deck.

Women are still barred from submarines and working as divers because of health concerns over the air and gas mixtures that they have to breathe as part of the jobs.

In cases where both mother and father are serving in the navy, there are no rules that say they both cannot be sent away to sea at the same time, although a senior naval officer said that would be unlikely to happen in any circumstance short of "all-out war."

In practice, until the children are aged eight or over when the military will pay towards the cost of a boarding school, the normal practice is to make sure that one parent is always posted to a shore establishment.




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