Rekha Khatri remembers that there were many army men among her relatives when she was a child. But, no woman she had known had become a soldier. Today, she leads a Nepal Army company that includes only women as officials and personnel, the first of its kind in the country.
Maybe because of the family background, Khatri, born in Nalinchok of Bhaktapur district, east of Kathmandu, got motivated to be in the army; she always had a special place in her heart for the army uniform.
In 2003, she gave her 12th-grade exams from Nobel College, Sinamangal. And that was when she heard from her uncle that the army opened applications for women in the army for the first time.
Nepal Army had begun recruiting women, as technical professionals, in the 1960s. However, it was only in 2003 that the national military institution accepted the intake of women as soldiers/fights.
Khatri applied and got into the army as an officer cadet. After six long months of hardcore training, along with her, there were around 70 other women who were given the positions of the second lieutenant.
She was posted at the Kali Prasad (Combat Engineering) Battalion inside the Tribhuvan International Airport. Since having women in the army was a new scenario, getting used to the working environment with male counterparts took time for Khatri. There was constant uncertainty troubling her regarding how the male counterparts would work together and behave with women. “Maybe it was because it was the first time ever women were in the army,” she says.
Now after 15 years, Khatri, as a major, is leading the Narayanhiti-based Gorakh Kali Company. Interestingly, all officials and personnel in Khatri’s company are women.
Some two weeks ago, the women in their barracks were busy. About 178 technical helpers including drivers, plumbers, electricians, and personnel responsible for weapon cleaning and maintenance were present there.
After the country adopted the federal governance model, the system within the Nepal Army has also become more inclusive with the promotion of women’s participation in all kinds of work, Khatri shares. “Considering the same, on July 16, 2017, our company was established with a mission to include women only.”
Before Khatri, Major Shristi Khadka and Major Jamuna Bista had led the company. The company has played an important role to develop and groom management and business skills in women, says Khadka.
The company has been given ceremonial duty, which means it prepares mock drills as a presentation in various events and programmes, for example, those to be organised on the Army Day, the Constitution Day, and more.
Women today are present in all of the army’s units except in the ‘special forces’. The number of women army officials and personnel has reached about 7,000. This equals to 7 per cent of the total army population, informs Nepal Army spokesperson Bigyan Dev Pandey.
According to Pandey, the Nepal Army has plans to establish more women-only companies in the near future.
Accordingly, for women candidates, the Nepal Army has shortened the length in the racecourse and the weight of loads they have to carry during training. They are not required to do the commando training also, which is said to be the toughest training of all.
Apart from these few exceptions, female army personnel have to go through the same training as male officials. They have to follow the same routine; they are also guided by the same list of rules and regulations. It means the officials are promoted or given certain positions only after they meet certain requirements in competitions with their male counterparts.
The participation and presence of women in the army have increased. However, the female army officials still feel that hesitation to talk about their problems in many of the men-led units. On the contrary, they do not feel the hesitation in women-led units, shares Shila Thapa, an official in the company.
Here is an example. A warrant officer (second class) in the company, Shanta Pandey, looks after the ration records. She was two children, a boy, and a girl. An army official generally gets 30 days of annual leave. But, she says the official leaves fall short when it comes to fulfilling her duties as a mother and a wife.
“Women have to play the role of a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law and other roles in parallel without a miss, and this makes our problems more different than those of our male counterparts. It is difficult to even voice our problems in men-led units.” But, it is easier to share those with women bosses, according to her.