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Duty calls Swiss army ponders conscription for women

Soldatinnen von hinten bei einem Kurs

In Switzerland, women have been doing military service on a voluntary basis.

(Keystone)

In the future, women could be called up to serve in the Swiss army or civil protection service alongside men. On Wednesday, the government announced a plan to carefully examine future recruitment needs and to consider the merits of the so-called ‘Norwegian model’, which recruits both men and women.

Switzerland currently has mandatory military service in the army for all able-bodied male citizens who are conscripted from the age of 18. The civilian protection service, meanwhile, was introduced in the 1990s for people who have moral objections to military service; they typically work in places like old people’s homes or hospitals.

Women may serve in the army or do civilian service if they wish. There are currently 1,117 serving on a voluntary basis. In recent years, there have been mounting calls for greater involvement of women in the Swiss armed forces.

On Wednesday, the government announced that by the end of 2020 it would review the future recruitment needs of the armed forces and would examine closely the so-called “Norwegian model”.

In 2016, Norway became the first NATO member to bring in conscription for women. The Scandinavian country - where four of the last five defence ministers have been women - was the first NATO member and European country to draft both men and women, joining a tiny group of countries around the world, including Israel.

Despite practicing conscription, Norway does not draft all eligible citizens and has provisions in place for conscientious objectors. Traditionally, about 60,000 Norwegians are available for conscription every year, but only 8,000 to 10,000 are conscripted.

A proposal put forward by a Swiss working group one year ago foresees a mandatory form of military service for men and women along the lines of the Norwegian model. But only those individuals who are needed by the army or civilian protection service would be employed. As a first step, the government has tasked the defence ministry with identifying sectors of the army and civilian service which lack recruits.

If this proposal is implemented, it would represent a mini revolution in Switzerland, where women are not obliged to do military service. It would also totally alter the current mandatory system for male recruits. Today, nearly 125,000 men receive periodic military training; around 42,000 reservists have completed their army training.

Equality and military service is regularly a hot topic in Switzerland, which is one of the few countries where men who are not fit for service have to pay an exemption tax. In 2010, a Swiss diabetic won a case before the European Court of Human Rights in which he demanded the right to complete his military service rather than to pay the tax. Since then, individuals deemed ‘unsuitable’ for military service also have the right to serve in the army, which must offer them an appropriate role.

This could all change with the Norwegian model, which would allow the army and civil protection service to choose their staff and give greater importance to the notion of military recruitment needs rather than egalitarianism.

A matter of society

If women were obliged to perform military service, too, it would be revolutionary in Switzerland. To be sure, some were forced to serve in anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War because of an urgent federal order.

In some cantons, women could, theoretically, be enrolled to serve in the disaster service. And, finally, some communes oblige women to be part of their firefighter service. Apart from these few examples, though, the principle that women should serve only on a voluntary basis and cannot be forced to do so is well-established.

The government also said in its statement that, as things stand now, it believes women should continue to serve only as volunteers in the army and civil protection. It considers that "the obligation for women to serve is both a matter of security policy and a matter of society, and must be made the subject of in-depth discussions".

Should military service be obligatory for women?

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