On today‘s battlefields, more women than ever are in the fight

Females are taking more active roles in militaries, serving on the front lines of armed conflicts and as peacekeepers in the world‘s hot spots.

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UNITED STATES Marines have to be able to carry one another if necessary. USMC Cpl. Gabrielle Green hefts a fellow marine as they ready for deployment on a Navy ship at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Of the 38,000 recruits who enter the corps each year, about 3,500 are women—or, in USMC phrasing, “female marines.”

This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

In a desert town in east-central Syria, two prisoners sat on the ground, guarded by about a dozen Kurdish men. The two had surrendered to the mostly Kurdish defense force, YPG, as it routed ISIS fighters from Baghouz, their last stronghold in Syria. The prisoners awaited transport to a detention camp that already held tens of thousands of ISIS loyalists and dependents. The guards stood over them, their triumph palpable.

A few hundred feet away, female Kurdish fighters with AK-47s over their shoulders guarded women and children, presumably militants’ wives and offspring. As these fighters, known as YPJ, chatted, several took long drags on their cigarettes (it had been forbidden for women to smoke under ISIS). Others adjusted their hair using their cell phones as mirrors (under ISIS, a woman who hadn’t kept her hair and face covered would have been whipped). Occasionally a YPJ woman spoke to the veiled women, a sea of black cloth punctuated by wary eyes and filthy children.

As the morning dragged on, some YPJ fighters decided to see the enemy up close. The women approached the two prisoners almost casually at first. Then, slowly and deliberately, they walked a tight circle around the men, staring straight at them. Not long ago in this town, a woman could have been executed for such behavior. But ISIS had fallen, and the female defenders of Kurdish Syria were claiming equal footing with their male comrades. They were on the front lines together, savoring victory.

From the desert of Syria and the grasslands of South Sudan to the war-torn jungle in western Colombia, growing numbers of women are serving on the front lines of military conflicts. Their uniforms and circumstances differ, but they cite similar reasons for joining armed forces. They want to serve their country. They want to show confidence, competence, and strength, setting an example for their children while proving something to themselves. Some mention a larger purpose that their male counterparts do not: They want to make life better specifically for women and girls—in their country, the region, and the world.

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SYRIA Kurdish fighters surround a surrendering woman as ISIS abandons the town of Baghouz in March. Women who joined or were forced into ISIS need guidance away from an oppressive version of Islam, a Kurdish female fighter says. “They understand the religion in the wrong way.”

At least 16 industrialized nations permit women to serve in frontline or combat roles. Women have served as an official part of the U.S. military in noncombat—but nonetheless dangerous—roles since Congress established the Army Nurse Corps in 1901. In addition to working as nurses, they were radio operators and logistical staff and, more recently, helicopter pilots and tank mechanics.

Even when policy allows women in combat roles, commanders may blanch at sending them. But in this era of terrorist attacks and ethnic clashes, women serving anywhere “can find themselves in combat, because the battlefield is nonlinear,” says Marine Lt. Col. Misty Posey, commander of female marine recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina, for two years, until mid-2019. “If you’re admin, if you’re supply, you could be in combat. And they all know that.”

Women recruits, familiar with society’s stereotype of “the weaker sex,” often arrive doubting whether they’re equal to the task. Posey won’t hear of it: “Women learn weakness. We can also unlearn it.” By the end of training, Posey says, most female marines are confident in their abilities “and know that they’re just as capable of contributing” as men.

Josephine Muhawenimana, a Rwandan mother of two, became a police officer because she admires “the way they are strong and ... inspire others.” Now she’s a chief sergeant in a UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan, a nation bloodied by civil and ethnic conflicts. “I remember what happened,” Muhawenimana says of the 1994 Rwandan genocide she escaped; she hopes peacekeepers can help prevent such a bloodbath in South Sudan. That country’s women seem proud of the job she’s doing, she says; mothers have thanked her for showing their daughters an alternative to getting married when they’re barely past puberty.

In Colombia a fighter known as Comandante Yesenia has spent two decades with the ELN, a left-wing guerrilla group fighting the nation’s government. She gave birth to a daughter in the forest and carried the nursing baby along with her for months. Yesenia says she’s fighting for equality for poor people, indigenous people, and women. “Every person brings her grain of salt,” she says. “From different spaces, we all fight.”

In the Syrian desert, as the captured ISIS fighters wait to be taken to detention camp, a YPJ fighter named Nuda Zagros is imagining the future. “Wherever there is oppression against women, we would like to go there,” she says. “We want to fight for equality. We don’t want to be superior, and we don’t want to have superiors. We are all the same.”

See below to learn how women in the military are making strides all over the world.
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UNITED STATES Slouching! Not acceptable! USMC Staff Sgt. Hollie Mulvihill, 26, a Parris Island drill instructor, barks disciplinary consequences at recruit Melissa Rodriguez Flores, 18. The corps trains all female recruits at Parris; their regimen is designed to be identical to men’s.

united states

RISING UP THE RANKS

Women have been able to serve in aviation and naval combat since the early 1990s, a period that also saw deep cuts in personnel as the Cold War ended. Only in 2016 were all ground combat jobs opened to women; by August 2019, 2,906 women held once restricted Army ground combat jobs.

Number of women in the U.S. military

215,971

217,564

Army

Navy

Air Force

27,948

Marine Corps

1970

2019

1989

For every 100 women in the U.S. military...

Officers

32 women join the Army (36 men join)

30 women join the Navy vs. 24 men

30 women join the Air Force vs. 24 men

8 women join the Marine Corps vs. 16 men

OFFICERS

The number of female commissioned officers is steadily climbing, surpassing the proportion of officers among males.

19% Women

18% Men

RACIAL MINORITIES

Native Americans, Alaska natives, African-Americans, and other minorities comprise a large portion of enlisted women.

41% Women

26% Men

HISPANICS

The proportion of Hispanic women who serve exceeds both the men’s share and the proportion of Hispanic women in the general U.S. population.

22% Women

18% Men

INFANTRY

Less than two years after all restrictions were lifted, some 600 women were serving in the Army’s newly opened ground combat positions, such as in field artillery. The number has since grown fivefold. As of August 2019, 231 women held once closed positions in the Marine Corps.

5% Women

17% Men

ADMINISTRATIVE

Women proportionally hold more administrative jobs, such as clerical and legal support positions, than males do.

25% Women

11% Men

HIGH PAY GRADE

As women progress through the ranks, they are starting to catch up with men in reaching higher salary ranges.

10% Women

12% Men

GROWING SHARE

Currently there are 100 women in the

U.S. military for every 499 men.

100 Women

499 Men

1,208 vs. 58,458

casualties

Statistics for women among the dead and wounded in named operations began to be tracked in 2001.

All data for 2019, except hispanics (2018), latest month available. Coast Guard data not included. Infantry category includes gun crews and seamanship specialists. Monica Serrano, NGM STAFF. Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Defense Manpower Data Center; Defense Casualty Analysis System; Lory Manning, Service Women’s Action Network; Center for A New American Security

united states

RISING UP THE RANKS

Women have been able to serve in aviation and naval combat since the early 1990s, a period that also saw deep cuts in personnel as the Cold War ended. Only in 2016 were all ground combat jobs opened to women; by August 2019, 2,906 women held once restricted Army ground combat jobs.

Number of

women in the

U.S. military

215,971

217,564

Army

Navy

Air Force

27,948

Marine Corps

1970

2019

1989

For every 100 women in the U.S. military...

Women

Men

Officers

Women

Men

19% vs. 18%

5% vs. 17%

OFFICERS

The number of female commissioned officers is steadily climbing, surpassing the proportion of officers among males.

INFANTRY

Less than two years after all restrictions were lifted, some 600 women were serving in the Army’s newly opened ground combat positions, such as in field artillery. The number has since grown fivefold. As of August 2019, 231 women held once closed positions in the Marine Corps.

32 women join the Army (36 out of every 100 men join)

41% vs. 26%

RACIAL MINORITIES

Native Americans, Alaska natives, African-Americans, and other minorities comprise a large portion of enlisted women.

30 women join the Navy vs. 24 men

GROWING SHARE

Currently there are

100 women in the

U.S. military for every 499 men.

22% vs. 18%

HISPANICS

The proportion of Hispanic women who serve exceeds both the men’s share and the proportion of Hispanic women in the general U.S. population.

25% vs. 11%

ADMINISTRATIVE

Women proportionally hold more administrative jobs, such as clerical and legal support positions, than males do.

30 women join the Air Force vs. 24 men

1,208 vs. 58,458

10% vs. 12%

HIGH PAY GRADE

As women progress through the ranks, they are starting to catch up with men in reaching higher salary ranges.

casualties

Statistics for women among the dead and wounded in named operations began to be tracked in 2001.

8 women join the Marine Corps vs. 16 men

All data for 2019, except hispanics (2018), latest month available. Coast Guard data not included. Infantry category includes gun crews and seamanship specialists. Monica Serrano, NGM STAFF. Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Defense Manpower Data Center; Defense Casualty Analysis System; Lory Manning, Service Women’s Action Network; Center for A New American Security

united states

RISING UP THE RANKS

Women have been able to serve in aviation and naval combat since the early 1990s, a period that also saw deep cuts in personnel as the Cold War ended. Only in 2016 were all ground combat jobs opened to women; by August 2019, 2,906 women held once restricted Army ground combat jobs.

Number of

women in the

U.S. military

215,971

217,564

Army

Navy

Air Force

27,948

Marine Corps

1970

2019

1989

Women

Men

Women

Men

For every 100 women in the U.S. military...

Officers

19% vs. 18%

5% vs. 17%

OFFICERS

The number of female commissioned officers is steadily climbing, surpassing the proportion of officers among males.

INFANTRY

Less than two years after all restrictions were lifted, some 600 women were serving in the Army’s newly opened ground combat positions, such

as in field artillery. The number has since grown fivefold. As of August 2019, 231 women held once closed positions in the Marine Corps.

32 women join the Army (36 out of every 100 men join)

41% vs. 26%

RACIAL MINORITIES

Native Americans, Alaska natives, African-Americans, and other minorities comprise a large portion of enlisted women.

GROWING SHARE

Currently there are

100 women in the

U.S. military for every 499 men.

30 women join the Navy vs. 24 men

22% vs. 18%

25% vs. 11%

HISPANICS

The proportion of Hispanic women who serve exceeds both the men’s share and the proportion of Hispanic women in the general U.S. population.

ADMINISTRATIVE

Women proportionally hold more administrative jobs, such as clerical and legal support positions, than males do.

30 women join the Air Force vs. 24 men

1,208 vs. 58,458

10% vs. 12%

casualties

Statistics for women among the dead and wounded in named operations began to be tracked in 2001.

HIGH PAY GRADE

As women progress through the ranks, they are starting to catch up with men in reaching higher salary ranges.

8 women join the Marine Corps vs. 16 men

All data for 2019, except hispanics (2018), latest month available. Coast Guard data not included. Infantry category includes gun crews and seamanship specialists. Monica Serrano, NGM STAFF. Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Defense Manpower Data Center; Defense Casualty Analysis System; Lory Manning, Service Women’s Action Network; Center for A New American Security

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COLOMBIA This book is a romance novel, but ELN Comandante Yesenia also reads aloud to her river outpost compatriots from works of ideology and ELN history. At 36, she has spent more than half her life as a guerrilla; her two children live with civilian relatives.

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SOUTH SUDAN UN Chief Sgt. Josephine Muhawenimana (center), 37, survived the 1994 genocide in her native Rwanda. Formerly a police commander in Kigali, she now patrols a protection camp for civilians in Juba, South Sudan. “From my childhood I wanted to be a police officer,” Muhawenimana says. “I feel I can do the same job as a man.”

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ISRAEL In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli border police patrol the profoundly disputed holy place that Israel calls the Tomb of the Patriarchs; Muslims know it as the Ibrahimi Mosque. “At the beginning, I just wanted to be a combat soldier,” says 20-year-old Inbar Shimon (at left). “I wanted meaning in my life—to feel I’m also doing something for my country.”

Lynsey Addario has covered most major conflicts and humanitarian crises in the past 15 years, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, and South Sudan. She’s the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.