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.

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.

<p><b>SYRIA </b>Lifting a child while working crowd control, a Kurdish security force commander, Sheikha Ibrahim, 33, picks her way through throngs of refugees at the al-Hol camp in northern Syria. Kurds run the camp, which has taken in thousands of women, many of them with children, as they surrendered or fled from ISIS strongholds.</p>

SYRIA Lifting a child while working crowd control, a Kurdish security force commander, Sheikha Ibrahim, 33, picks her way through throngs of refugees at the al-Hol camp in northern Syria. Kurds run the camp, which has taken in thousands of women, many of them with children, as they surrendered or fled from ISIS strongholds.

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.
<p><b>UNITED STATES</b> As their boot camp at South Carolina’s Parris Island culminates in a ferocious finale, 20-year-old Desiree White plays a wounded marine being rescued by fellow recruits. This extra-intense stretch of training, required of male and female USMC recruits, has a special name: the Crucible.</p>

UNITED STATES As their boot camp at South Carolina’s Parris Island culminates in a ferocious finale, 20-year-old Desiree White plays a wounded marine being rescued by fellow recruits. This extra-intense stretch of training, required of male and female USMC recruits, has a special name: the Crucible.

<p><b>COLOMBIA </b>In an improvised community center near her ELN training camp, Comandante Yesenia takes a refresher break after a village meeting. Despite accusations that they sometimes extort and bully villagers, and traffic drugs, the fighters say they bring money and medical help to otherwise neglected villages and that locals return the favor by warning when government soldiers are nearby.</p>

COLOMBIA In an improvised community center near her ELN training camp, Comandante Yesenia takes a refresher break after a village meeting. Despite accusations that they sometimes extort and bully villagers, and traffic drugs, the fighters say they bring money and medical help to otherwise neglected villages and that locals return the favor by warning when government soldiers are nearby.

<p><b>SOUTH SUDAN </b>In South Sudan, Mongolian women are among the UN peacekeepers patrolling protection camps.</p>

SOUTH SUDAN In South Sudan, Mongolian women are among the UN peacekeepers patrolling protection camps.

<p><b>ISRAEL </b>With soldier training and immediate arrest authority, Israeli border police stay on high alert for hostilities. At this West Bank checkpoint in Hebron, where a tiny Jewish population lives among more than 200,000 Palestinians, 20-year-old Yuval Binyamin (in sunglasses) orders a young Palestinian to show he’s hiding no weapons beneath his shirt.</p>

ISRAEL With soldier training and immediate arrest authority, Israeli border police stay on high alert for hostilities. At this West Bank checkpoint in Hebron, where a tiny Jewish population lives among more than 200,000 Palestinians, 20-year-old Yuval Binyamin (in sunglasses) orders a young Palestinian to show he’s hiding no weapons beneath his shirt.

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.

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