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Conscripting Change: Norway’s Case for Neutrality

Commentary, 5 July 2013
Defence Policy, Military Personnel, Europe
Norway has become the first NATO nation to introduce gender neutral conscription. This maximises operational capability and will go a long way to setting a framework for other militaries contemplating change, in female if not in conscription terms.

Norway has become the first NATO nation to introduce gender neutral conscription. This maximises operational capability and will go a long way to setting a framework for other militaries contemplating change, in female if not in conscription terms.

Norway Women soldiers

On 14 June, 100 years and three days after introducing full universal suffrage for women, the Norwegian parliament voted for the adoption of gender-neutral conscription to the Norwegian military. With only the Christian Democrat party offering resistance, Norway has become the first European country, first NATO nation, and one of only a handful of states around the world to practice gender equality in (conscripted) military service. Norway has already proven itself a leading advocate on gender policy in the military as well as civilian spheres - in 1985 they became the first NATO nation to allow women to serve in combat positions.

The first female conscripts to serve as a result of the new policy are expected as of 2015. Whilst many nations move away from any form of conscripted service, and others debate whether women should continue to be restricted from certain military roles, Norway has emphatically declared through this policy its standpoint on how it views its military future.

Defence Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen termed the adoption of the resolution an historic day for equality and the Norwegian armed forces.[1] Urging the Norwegian government to rapidly translate the resolution into legislation, two driving considerations behind the move were highlighted. Firstly, and firmly with equality concerns in mind, Strøm-Erichsen declared that all citizens ought to have the same rights, and obligations, and those included the duty to defend their nation irrespective of their gender.

Secondly, and in an argument familiar to defence personnel across the world, the necessity of maximising operational capability and effectiveness through the employment of the best people possible for a task was made. Citing the composition of modern militaries, Strøm-Erichsen pointed out that high-tech equipment alone was not enough. Instead, diversity of people, skills and perspectives was essential. Chief of Defence General Harald Sunde commented on the weakness of a solution which only allowed the military to draw on half of the population for service - for Norway, future success does not mean excluding half its citizens based on their biology.[2]

Not Just About Filling Quotas

In practical terms, the move does not now mean that every female citizen will have to bear arms. Women have been able to voluntarily complete national service since 1976, and though all were required, like their male counterparts, to meet with the conscription board for assessment, mandatory service has not applied to them until now.

Norway's peacetime force comprises around 23,000 personnel, though its mobilised strength can increase to around 83,000. Of the 60,000 citizens in the 19-44 age range eligible for conscription, only 8-10,000 are called up to participate - in 2012, the figure was 9,265. Conscripts are required to complete 19 months of service, normally a 12 month initial duty with the remainder possible to be served out through Reserves training, or annual training with the Home Guard. The Ministry of Defence reports that voluntary recruitment to the armed forces, however, is not only high but increasing and the number of applicants in fact exceeds military needs.[3]

Thus the adoption of female conscription is not simply a matter of finding bodies to fill a gap. With only a small proportion of eligible conscripts actually called up, it will most likely be those male and female citizens with the desire to serve who ultimately fulfil the quota.

Gender neutral conscription means more than just equal numbers in military service - the political discourse has pointed out that conscription serves to deepen ties and understanding between the general population and defence practices, and applying the same demands to men and women alike further inculcates a shared responsibility for shared values. Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide emphasised the social equality aspect to the new policy, and held up Norway as a template for other nations with regards to gender equality in the military.

The Debate About Women in the Military Continues

Female front line combat is a debate that is still undergoing immense scrutiny within the US and UK, and Israel is often cited as one example of both applied female conscription, and of women serving in front line combat. However, Israel differs from the Norwegian implementation as they do not implement gender-neutrality in the same way: men and women complete different terms of service within the Israeli Defence Force, including the length of time their draft comprises. Norway's commitment to military gender equality mirrors their pro-activity on the topic in the civilian setting , and will go a long way to setting a framework for other militaries contemplating change, in female if not in conscription terms.

Given the establishment of the NATO Office on Gender Perspectives, together with UN resolutions on gender, the issue of female involvement in military and security matters is being set at an international level to intersect with the domestic political arena of member states. As it is often argued that the military environment is no place for social experimentation - no matter the civilian support of the initiative - the Norwegian move will be heavily dissected by those not just with a stake in military gender issues, but also in terms of force reform and restructuring.  

Traditional gender stereotyping of military roles may become more untenable as austerity-hit nations are compelled to initiate cuts and reconfigurations and attempt to plan for the post-Afghanistan defence environment. Experience in Afghanistan has provided ample stories of women invalidating the thinking behind restrictions to female capabilities when deployed in theatre. If standards appropriate to the tasks are retained, those with the ability to achieve should not be prohibited from doing so.

It is true that the demands of the military environment make it a poor choice for social experimentation done for the sake of experimentation alone. But that does not mean that change and innovation should be rejected just to preserve the status quo. Norway's move to female conscription allows for the establishment of the widest possible pool of candidates from which the best can be drawn. Elsewhere, the potential opening to women of closed roles is initiating a revision of what the genuine needs are for certain jobs, with the knock-on effect of streamlining outdated requirements. As long as the highest standards continue to be demanded, the door should be open to equality of opportunity, and beyond it a wider horizon of opportunities for the military.

Stepping back from the debate over female military service it seems clear that, at least in peacetime, Norway will not be demanding every citizen, whether male or female, to fully serve out their military obligations. With gender already no barrier to where in the military women can serve, the new policy seems to have greater impact in discussion than reality, the extenuating circumstances of an unforeseen war aside. And with only a small number of conscripts used to bolster professional military numbers, it begs the question of whether conscription is even necessary, let alone one which calls on half, not all, of the population. It remains to be seen whether Norway's new policy truly is an innovative change, or just an amendment to an anachronistic practice.                                                                                  

Ultimately, Norway aims for 20 per cent of its military to be female by 2020, but today the number lingers only around 9 per cent despite numerous measures put in place to encourage and increase women's participation. It is hoped that the conscription change will encourage more women to look to the military for a career. But it is perhaps reflective of a lesser discussed aspect of gender and military employment: to (voluntarily) enlist requires a certain attitude, perspective and desire. Gender parity may never be achievable for the military, simply because its work does not appeal. Replicating an equality policy from the civilian to military space may only work on paper alone. You can lead the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.


[1] Ministry of Defence Press Release 53/2013, 14 June 2013

[2] 'Norway to Introduce Gender Neutral Conscription', Lennart Simonsson, 15 June 2013

[3]  MoD Press Release 53/2013

* Photo courtest of Norwegian Ministry of Defence

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