Estonia looks to Sweden for women's national defense recruitment model

Women have been able to join up for military service in Estonia since 2013,
Women have been able to join up for military service in Estonia since 2013, Source: Raul Mee/Eesti Kaitsevägi

The number of girls interested in joining the national defense in Estonia is growing rapidly, as is the number of women joining the military.

Although currently Estonian society is not in favor of introducing compulsory military service for women, this may change, as the proportion of women in the national defense increases.

60 women joined the military in Estonia last year, around two percent of the total number of recruits.

In Lithuania and Finland, four percent of those doing military service are women, said Eleri Lillemäe, sociologist and analyst at the Estonian Defense Academy. In Norway and Sweden, the proportion of women among recruits is much higher, between 20-25 percent, with Lillemäe explaining that there are two main reasons behind this.

First of all, demographics have made these changes necessary. In the ageing societies of developed countries, there are simply not enough young men available to make up the required numbers.

But the other very important change, especially when it comes to Norway and Sweden, is that both have moved very strongly towards achieving gender equality.

"There, the main argument is no longer that there is a need to increase the number of conscripts at the expense of women, but that women should have exactly the same rights and obligations as men," Lillemäe said. "That's why they have made recruitment gender neutral."

Although in Norway and Sweden conscription is mandatory for women, the recruitment process there is also different from in Estonia.

Sweden has an annual selection pool of 100,000 young people, from which between 4,000 and 5,000 are called up each year. "(Estonia's) selection pool is 10,000, from which we call up 3,000 to 4,000. The selection mechanism there is so much stronger. They are able to take highly motivated men and women," said Lillemäe.

For women in Estonia, military service is voluntary and includes a 90-day period during which they can choose to opt out. Opinion polls among recruits confirm that, in other respects, women serve on equal footing with men.

Women have been able to join up for military service in Estonia since 2013, with 15 doing so at the first time of asking.

As the total number completing military service is set to rise, so too will the number of women involved. However, according to deputy director-general Anu Rannaveski, the Defense Resources Agency has not set specific targets for the recruitment of women.

"We want to reach as many young women and girls as possible, so that they choose the path of military service. We have pretty good practice in (providing national defense education. Around 6,000 students go through (the process) every year, half of them are women. This shows that girls are interested in national defense," said Rannaveski.

The current system, whereby women participate in the national defense on an entirely voluntary basis, is supported by about 80 percent of Estonian society, while only around five percent are in favor of mandatory national service for women.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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