Conscription: A Gender-Based Injustice Around the World

Compulsory military service is still a reality in many parts of the world today. According to a 2019 Pew analysis, 60 countries around the world have an active system of conscription (this does not include the United States, which requires men to register but does not currently call them into service). While conscription has become somewhat more gender neutral than in the past, it still predominantly applies to men.

Conscription has a major impact on people’s lives. Those targeted by it—predominantly men—are required to put their lives on hold for months or years. In some cases they are even subjected to humiliating or degrading treatment in the military environment. We might then expect this to stand out as a serious gender-based hardship and injustice.

But it’s not generally seen as a major problem of gender equality or discrimination, as argued in the 2020 academic article “Gender-Specific Call of Duty”. The authors focus on its absence from gender equality indexes, but they also point out the lack of consideration in other miscellaneous data and reports, concluding that “gender-specific conscription is not considered to be a gender equality issue of high importance”.

My default assumption is that conscription should be abolished entirely, but even if it can be justified as a necessary evil for national defense in some countries, the gender point still stands. Necessary burdens should be applied in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. It’s hard to imagine this principle not being at the top of people’s minds if the genders were reversed. If some policy of compulsory service applied only to women and exempted men, it would be seen as a major gender injustice to fix, and rightly so.

Let’s take a closer look at conscription around the world, and then discuss some possible objections to the idea of conscription as a gender-based injustice.

Sections:

  1. “Gender-Neutral” Conscription
  2. Male-Only Conscription
  3. Mistreatment and Abuse
  4. Discussion

(Length: 2,900 words.)

1. “Gender-Neutral” Conscription

Eleven countries around the world conscript both men and women, including:

Israel conscripts both men and women into the military, but women’s length of service is shorter (24 months as opposed to 32 months). Women also have additional special exemptions available, related to parenthood (not just pregnancy) and religious conviction. 69% of Jewish men and 55% of Jewish women end up serving as conscripts. Many women (and some men) serve instead in an alternative civilian service.

Norway and Sweden take gender equality a step further; since 2016 and 2017 respectively, they conscript both men and women and apply the same length of service (19 months in Norway and 9–11 months in Sweden). In contrast to most other countries on this list, however, these two countries currently have a softer version of conscription that considers conscript motivation and is much less prone to truly forcing people into service. Sweden has a conscription rate of about 4% and Norway is around 15%. This was not always the case though—during the Cold War, nearly 85% of Swedish men were drafted.

These two Nordic countries ended up with admirable policies from the perspective of gender equality (also from the perspective of individual rights), but when reading about the history of conscription in these countries it’s striking how little of a concern there was about gender discrimination against men. In Sweden, for example:

[In the 1960s and 1970s] Sweden had begun to portray itself, nationally and internationally, as a leading nation in gender equality. Formal barriers for women in the labour market did not sit comfortably with that image. Men-only conscription was, however, considered less of a problem, and was even added as an exception to the constitution’s new ban against gender-discriminatory laws and regulations. Therefore, military obligations were yet again confirmed as natural tasks for men, while women’s right to have access to military occupations was framed as a gender equality issue.

Conscripting women: gender, soldiering, and military service in Sweden 1965–2018” (Women’s History Review)

When the system was made gender-neutral in the 2010s, the primary concern was being able to recruit capable women:

It was first and foremost presented as a prerequisite for the military to recruit the best and most qualified, and in that context ‘the gender of the individual has no significance’. However, because male-only conscription had proved insufficient to recruit women service members, the SAF risked missing out on qualified female candidates. Therefore, the government concluded that any future recruitment system had to be the same for women as for men.

Conscripting women: gender, soldiering, and military service in Sweden 1965–2018” (Women’s History Review)

Additionally, North Korea started conscripting women in 2015. It has the longest service requirements of any country on this list, with women required to serve for 3 to 6 years and men required to give a monumental 10 years to the military.

2. Male-Only Conscription

Forty-five countries conscript only men, including:

Austria requires male citizens to do six months of military service or nine months in the alternative civilian service working in places like hospitals and retirement homes. 22,000 men are drafted each year; conscription was upheld in a 2013 referendum (BBC).

Finland has compulsory service for men that lasts for 165, 255, or 347 days. Conscripts receive a small daily allowance (€5.15 to €12.00). 70% of men end up serving in the military, while most of the rest do civilian service and a small number each year go to jail for completely refusing (YLE). 80% of Finns in a 2009 poll wanted compulsory service to continue to apply to only men.

In Switzerland, men must serve 245 days in the military (18 weeks of initial training, followed by yearly recalls). 20,000 men are conscripted each year. An alternative civilian service exists, with longer time requirements. Men who do not perform either service pay 3% of their income as a Military Service Exemption Tax for ten years. Conscription was upheld in a 2013 referendum. Women are exempt, aside from a mandatory “information day” about military service (starting in 2020) to encourage more to volunteer.

South Korea conscripts 230,000 young men each year for two years of service. There is no option for conscientious objection or alternative civilian service, and fewer than 45 people receive exemptions each year.

Singapore conscripts most men for two years of service in the army, police force, or civil defense force. Deferments are possible for educational reasons, but exemptions appear to be rare, limited to severe physical or mental disabilities.

Russia calls up 135,000 conscripts each year for 12 months of service. Possible deferments or exemptions include being a university student, a single father, or a father of multiple children. In 2019 the government announced plans to abandon conscription, although one geopolitics think tank expressed skepticism given similar plans made as early as 2001.

Egypt requires men to serve in the military for one to three years, depending on their level of education. Hundreds of thousands are conscripted each year. Possible exemptions include medical reasons, being an only son, or being gay.

3. Mistreatment and Abuse

Conscription doesn’t just mean lost time to involuntary service. Depending on the country and its military culture, conscription can mean enduring mistreatment and abuse ranging from bullying to beatings. An account from South Korea:

Young Chun — an American citizen born and raised in Illinois — doesn’t look back at his military service in South Korea fondly. Now 41, he remembers how soldiers mocked his broken Korean. Higher-ranking officers screamed at him for looking at his pocket dictionary while walking. He had to wipe down golf balls for his superiors.

“The military wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be … it was far worse,” said Chun, who was forced to serve from 2004-2006 [due to his dual citizenship]. 

South Korea wants to draft more men for its shrinking military — and punish those who dodge” (The World)

Here’s an account from Singapore:

I’d say I made the most of it. I’d say I gave it my all. I’d say I had a pretty damned positive attitude.

It was the most miserable time of my life. Ever. Good times notwithstanding. I’d take it all back if I could. The subjugation, the mental torment, the sub-human treatment, the separation from loved ones, the taunting for wanting human wants, the shame for being too weak, the ridiculous incompetence and sadism of people with absolute power over you, the injustice you suffer, the complete lack of dignity or semblance of control of your life.

What is it like to go through National Service in Singapore?” (Quora)

The Egyptian army reportedly “tests” its conscripts for homosexuality:

“You bend down and spread [your legs] and if they find [the anus] bigger than usual, they assume you’re gay and exempt you,” Tamer explained […] “I don’t know anyone who was let go [because of this],” Tamer said, “but rumours say he gets a special red‐coloured exemption that tells any [job] recruiter that he’s gay.”

‘It is hell’: Chronicles of military conscripts in Egypt” (Middle East Eye)

The stories from Russian conscripts are particularly haunting. One 2005 article in the Guardian talks of violence, extortion, and suicide.

Most conscripts fall victim to dedovshchina – the rule of the grandfathers, a vicious code of bullying and subservience that pervades the Russian army.

Most survive the repeated beatings. Others, like Maxim, don’t. He drank a bottle of vodka and threw himself under a train. […]

Maxim’s fate is far from extraordinary. In one week alone last month, 46 conscripts died of “non-combat related” injuries. Anna Kashirtseva, from the army victim support group, the Mothers’ Rights Foundation, estimates that 3,000 soldiers die each year from non-combat related injuries, three times the official figure. “Deaths are often declared suicides and then not investigated,” she said.

Young, patriotic and bullied to death” (The Guardian)

This is not to say that every conscript suffers like this, but these stories are common enough in some countries to add an extra sense of urgency to the problem of conscription.

4. Discussion

Can conscription be a gender injustice against men if those in power who implement the policies are mostly men themselves?

At least in a democracy, you can’t simply blame policies on the government with no regard for the population that puts the government in power. In some countries the population even voted directly to support conscription in a referendum. Conscription was supported by 60% of voters in Austria and 73% in Switzerland. That can’t be only men.

I can’t find a gender breakdown from those countries, but a 2011 Pew poll in the U.S. found that men were 1.4× more likely than women to want to activate the draft (23% versus 16%). On the other hand, a 2016 Rasmussen poll in the U.S. found that men were 1.6× more likely than women to want to extend draft registration to both sexes (61% versus 38%).

Even if we’re discussing a country where conscription is entirely the fault of a mostly male group of rulers, that doesn’t stop it from being a gender-based injustice. It’s entirely possible for them to discriminate against or mistreat men, especially (but not only) if they themselves are exempt. Them being male doesn’t mean they necessarily feel any sort of gender-based solidarity with the male part of the population they’re ruling over. It’s possible for them to have attitudes that we could refer to as “internalized misandry” (by analogy with the concept of “internalized misogyny” for women).

If a system of gender-discriminatory conscription is upheld in a referendum (or is just known to be widely supported in the country), does that legitimize it?

I think that gives it democratic legitimacy, which is better than not having democratic legitimacy, but it doesn’t make the policy exempt from criticism on other grounds like gender equality or individual rights. Ireland had a referendum on abortion in 1983, which the anti-abortion side won with 67% of the vote. This gave the ban on abortion democratic legitimacy. Should that have made people who support abortion give up their criticisms? If they had given up, maybe the 2018 referendum on abortion wouldn’t have been held or won by the pro-abortion side this time (with 66% of the vote).

If someone doesn’t want to abolish conscription, the only way to avoid discriminating against men is to conscript women too. Is that realistic with sex differences in strength?

Countries like Israel, Sweden, and Norway seem to do well enough at including female conscripts in their militaries. Most countries actually include women in the military in some capacity (though not always in combat roles). But keep in mind that conscription doesn’t have to involve the military—many countries have alternative civilian services for conscripts that are unable or unwilling to be involved in the military.

What about women’s unique ways of contributing to society, particularly child-bearing? Should that perhaps count in place of conscription?

This doesn’t seem equivalent because child-bearing is not mandated by the government. Even if it was (which most people would consider inhumane, and rightly so), or if women got an exemption from conscription if they promised to have children, there’s still a big difference. Joining the military is not something that most men do by choice (clear from countries without conscription), while most women would have had children anyway.

Additionally, this line of thinking strikes me as odd because most people if they’re not conscripted would be doing something productive for society. Men aren’t able to give birth to children, but that doesn’t mean they’re idle and need to be conscripted to be productive. The statistics show that while women spend more time raising and caring for children, men spend more time in employment. If conscription is about making unproductive people contribute to society, applying it only to men is not the right way to achieve that.

If conscription is a hardship and countries that have conscription don’t feel they need female conscripts too, why unnecessarily spread this hardship to more people?

Imagine a system of conscription that only applied to lower class people, with those in the upper class exempted. If someone from the upper class defended this with “they get enough conscripts from the lower classes, there’s no need to unnecessarily spread the hardship to us too”, it probably wouldn’t be very convincing. Not only would extending conscription to them spread the burden out from being just on the lower classes (allowing them, e.g., lower time requirements or more humane exemption policies), it would also be inherently important to do if you’re opposed to class discrimination.

(This example was chosen because it’s plausible and easy to imagine. I don’t mean to suggest that gender is the same as class. I don’t think either men or women are comparable to an upper class.)

If women are exempt from conscription in a country that is overall bad for women, does eliminating one of their few advantages really further gender equality?

Can it ever be worth keeping an otherwise undesirable inequality to balance out other inequalities? A gender-flipped example to illustrate: let’s say you think that most social norms around dating and relationships favour women over men, with the exception that the man’s last name takes precedence for marriage and children. If you see this as one of the few advantages that men have here, you might hesitate to eliminate it.

The premise isn’t completely crazy but I’m not very comfortable with it. First, it just results in a lot more roadblocks to equality. If you can’t fix discrimination in conscription because of other inequalities harming women, what’s stopping someone from saying that you can’t fix those other inequalities because of the discrimination in conscription? And if you want to keep the preference for men’s last names over women’s, you risk people using that as a justification to keep other inequalities in dating or relationships that favour women, such as the expectation that men pay for dates.

Another point is that gender-discriminatory conscription, by mandating such different life experiences for men and women, very plausibly furthers the gender divide and creates resentment between men and women. From South Korea:

 “You just don’t get it; you’ve never served.”

Most South Korean women probably have heard this line. It speaks to a core gender divide here – between men, who serve two years’ mandatory military service called “gundae,” and women, who don’t. That men and women will always be different.

Military service is required for most men between 18 and 35, and they often serve during college or as they launch their careers. It’s a formative experience, but only for half the population.

South Korea exempts women from two years’ mandatory military service. Is that fair?” (National Post)

That should be concerning even for people who are mostly concerned with the women’s side of gender equality. Putting men and women through the same experiences—to the extent that it’s possible or practical—appears to lessen how much they see each other as an “other”. See experiences from Norway on bunking men and women together:

“We see that exposure to each other increases tolerance, acceptance and understanding toward each other,” insists Ms Nina Hellum, a researcher at the Norwegian Research Defence Establishment. […]

A 2014 study showed that unisex dormitories helped combat sexual harassment thanks to a phenomenom of “de-genderisation”. Sharing living quarters makes both the men and women pay more attention to their behaviour, and thus they’re able to develop a camaraderie, an almost sibling-like relationship, the study’s authors claimed.

Norway introduces compulsory military service for women, bunking them in mixed dorms with men” (The Straits Times)

This isn’t to say that it can never be right to keep an otherwise undesirable inequality to balance out other inequalities, but it definitely has downsides and my default assumption is to avoid it.

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