The British Army opened its ranks to women in the frontline in 2016. Now, the Gurkhas are to do the same from 2020. However, there are some critical differences in the way in which they are to be selected. Unlike the rest of the army, where many fitness and test standards are relaxed for women, the Gurkha selection process will make no such concessions.
A 2007 scheme to assess the ability of women to work in the Gurkhas was not adopted as policy. However, 2015 saw the election of the first female president of Nepal, and everything then seemed possible with regard to women’s rights in this historically male-dominated society. Her election was seen as a prelude to many such changes – one of which is the willingness to allow women to put themselves forward for selection for the Gurkhas.
The plan is also linked to a growing problem with recruiting in the Army as a whole. It is hoped that by adding some 800 to the strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas, currently 3000 strong, it will help fill the wider shortfall in Army numbers.
The physical tests involved are tough and include some very specific Nepalese skills such as carrying a wicker basket weighing 55lbs up a steep hill. It is a fearful trial of endurance and strength and unique in that it requires the applicant to support the basket using a strap across their forehead over the three-mile course. That is not the end of the process, however. According to the Gurkha Brigade’s website:
They undergo a number of objective tests: medical, education and physical before going through to the final interview. All recruits have now completed the Doko race, a 5km push uphill carrying 25kg in a Doko basket. This tests their determination and grit and so far this year, only 33 of 500 have failed to finish the race within the cut-off time of 48 minutes. The Potential Recruits (PRs) now also undergo new medical tests. They undertake Electro-Cardiograms (ECGs) and also, a new addition is Functional Movement Screening of the PRs. Under an examination from a physiotherapist, this should flag-up any existing injuries and perhaps, more importantly, identify those PRs more at risk of sustaining an injury over the next 6 months. This will give Gurkha Company Catterick (GCC) the chance to correctly manage those successful T/Rfn who are slightly more prone to injury.
The competition to get into the Brigade is fairly daunting. This was the situation in 2015:
This year the target is to recruit 230 young Trainees with the aptitude, upon completion of their training, to meet the demands of the contemporary Brigade of Gurkhas. From the 7,865 who originally applied, 500 have been called forward to Central Selection.
Image: Gurkha Brigade Association
Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, observed: “The Gurkhas are renowned as one of the best fighting forces in the world, with a proud history of serving Her Majesty, and it is right that women have the opportunity to serve in this elite group.”
At the end of the day, it will be interesting to see whether the actual roles for successful female applicants will be in the frontline. Many armies talk about women fighters, but few governments are willing to let them do so. In some cases, such as the Israeli IDF, there has been much publicity about the role of women in frontline units but recent concerns about the physical differences in men and women are beginning to cause some to question this policy.
That having been said, if anyone, man or women, is able to do the Doko trial in its allotted time of 48 minutes – they deserve a chance to serve in the Gurkhas!
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