Lithuania has announced the reintroduction of conscription in the face of a perceived threat from Russia. All men aged between 19 and 26 will enter a ballot to decide who will be called up. Apparently, and not surprisingly, this has led to petitions to the Lithuanian Equal Opportunities Ombudsman claiming that men are being treated unfairly compared to women. The actual law, from 1998, says that the following do NOT count as discrimination:
* special protection of women during pregnancy, childbirth and nursing;
* compulsory military service prescribed by the law exclusively for men;
* different retirement age for women and men;
* requirements for safety at work applicable to women aimed at protecting women’s health owing to their physiological properties;
* specific work which can be performed only by a person of a particular sex;
* special temporary measures foreseen in the laws, which are applied to accelerate the implementation of de facto equality between women and men and are to be cancelled when equal opportunities for women and men are realised;
* different rules and conditions when implementing specific punishments.
In other words, the exclusions work entirely in favour of women. The two greatest examples of institutionalised discrimination against men, conscription and greater retirement age, are excluded.
There are a number of other European countries that still have compulsory military service. Of these, only Norway has exactly the same obligations on young men and young women. Israel also conscripts women, but their service is a shorter, watered-down version of that imposed on the men. All other European countries with conscription impose it on men only, with no comparable obligation on women. We have a European Charter of Human Rights which bans forced labour and gender discrimination: unless you have the misfortune to be a young man, of course, in which case military service slips through the net (see Article 4, Section 3b)
Going back a few decades, social attitudes were different. In general, men worked, women stayed at home: a man forced to join the army came back to civilian life and was not particularly disadvantaged in the workplace. Today things are entirely different. Women’s rights at work are protected by a whole range of European and national laws. Young women get jobs on an equal footing with men, and both genders compete in the workplace. A few years ago, when Germany still had conscription, a German colleague of mine left university at the same time as a girl on the same course. He had to go into the army, she did not. When he was allowed out, he got a job in an electronics company: the girl who left university at the same time as him was his boss! To rub salt into the wound, at around that time feminists in Germany, in the name of equal opportunities, gained the right for women to do military service if they wanted to, but without the obligation to do so. The woman’s right to choose: the man’s right to do as he is told. What strange ideas of equality we have.
Issues like this in the workplace will become more and more commonplace if male-only conscription is not outlawed. Women today fight alongside men in most branches of the armed services, and there is no real reason why this right should not be matched by a similar obligation. That said, even if the women are not forced into the army, surely the concept of common fairness suggests that they should at least do a similar period of compulsory civilian national service.
I know that some feminists will say that many women lose time in the workplace to have families. That is true. but the difference is that this is a lifestyle choice: conscription is compulsory. Also, the fact that young women now earn more than young men will see more women forced to remain at work to be the family breadwinner. More and more men will become stay-at-home dads, so even that dubious argument against female conscription will become more and more invalid.
It will be interesting to see if Lithuania follows Norway’s lead and extends its new conscription laws to women, or just ignores the whole concept of equality and imposes this forced labour on men only.