Women at war – would conscripted women fight on the front line?

Women are technically just as likely as men to be drafted should a law on conscription be introduced in the UK (Picture: Getty)

As top military officials warn an all-out war between NATO and Russia would likely see conscription introduced in the UK, many may now be wondering what such a move would mean for the nation’s women.

Among the dozens of countries around the world that have laws allowing men to be conscripted, which means being compulsorily enlisted into the armed forces, only around 20 have the same or similar rules for women. 

In some of these countries, women are required to participate in some form of ‘national service’, a mandatory period of training and other duties within the military, such as in Sweden, Norway, Venezuela, Israel, Morocco and Vietnam, among others. 

Earlier this week, Britain’s former top NATO commander warned the country would have to ‘think the unthinkable’ and consider conscription if all-out war were to break out with Russia, in comments echoed by other senior military officials.

The government has since insisted any form of mandatory military service is off the table, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying discussions about ‘hypothetical scenarios’ were ‘not helpful’, though different countries have historically been shown to change their expectations in times of crisis.

There are presently no guidelines on how a 21st century model of conscription might be implemented in the UK – which only introduced ‘the draft’, as it is otherwise known, during World War I and II, before phasing out national service in the 1960s.

Only 20 countries around the world currently have laws and regulations on compulsory military service for women (Picture: Getty)

This would mean women are technically just as likely as men to be drafted were such a law to be introduced.

The question remains, however, of how far female conscripts would be required to serve on the front lines of any active conflict – not least given it’s only since 2018 that professional female soldiers in the British Army have been able to serve in all of the same combat roles as their male colleagues. 

Another issue is what options would look like for women only willing to serve in non-combatant positions, or for those seeking to avoid the draft altogether. 

Norway is among the countries that include women under national service requirements (Picture: Getty)

Israel’s law on national service also extends to women, though female soldiers serving in the war in Gaza are reported to be exclusively professional military personnel (Picture: AFP)

As things stand, the British Armed Forces officially recognises the rights of professional soldiers to refuse combat duties if they ‘develop a conscientious objection’ – in other words, if they begin to protest against their duties on moral grounds – during their time of service.

The official channel for registering such a position is for a soldier to ‘raise the issue formally’ with their senior officers, at whose discretion the soldier can be moved to a non-combatant role. 

If a soldier’s commander rejects their objection, the soldier is then at liberty to escalate their appeal up the chain of command. 

Success in this is exceptionally rare, with only six such cases approved for discharge from service between 2001 and 2010.

It is unclear how exactly a 21st century law on conscription would be implemented in the UK – much less what the options may be for people seeking non-combatant roles or wishing to refuse military service altogether (Picture: Getty)

The right to conscientious objection, as it applies to professional soldiers, remains vague in British law, meaning the government could easily override any such claims in the event that conscription were indeed introduced in the UK. 

Such a move would, however, quite possibly set Britain at odds with the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. 

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In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee determined that the charter does indeed cover the right to conscientious objection under Article 18, which states: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’

That said, the ruling was not unanimous, and the right to conscientious objection is not explicitly included in the document, meaning any challenge to conscription under the charter would run the risk of protracted legal wrangling.

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