When Petty Officer 3rd Class Maria Tõkke first volunteered to join the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) in January 2019, she got an earful from some of her male friends.
“[They] were very surprised by my decision and said that I was crazy to do such a thing because they felt that women do not belong in the army,” she says. However, “they quickly changed their opinion once they saw how well I was doing.”
“Most of my girl friends,” she adds, “think it is very cool.”
Petty Officer Tõkke is one of an increasing number of young women who are voluntarily enrolling in Estonia’s conscription service, which is required for men, and then choosing to enter military service professionally.
With the world’s spotlight on the volatile situation in nearby Belarus, and the continuing fraught relations between the Balts and Moscow, the Estonian military appears to be embracing the shift in mindset among Estonia’s young women.
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“Desire to contribute to the national defense” is the principal motive impelling the increasing number of women who are joining the Estonian defense forces, says Laura Toodu, a former conscript who now works for the Ministry of Defense, where she helps recruit female conscripts.
“They want to be there”
The Estonian military is built around a reserve army model where conscripts are trained for eight or 11 months, whereupon they become part of the reserve force that is called up in case of a national emergency. Active armed forces number around 6,000 troops, roughly half of whom are conscripts.
Conscription service is compulsory for Estonian men between the ages of 18 and 27. However women can also enlist if they wish. And an increasing number of young Estonian women do. This summer 46 Estonian women volunteered for the conscription service as part of the July “intake,” the most ever at one time. Not many, perhaps, for one of Estonia’s large NATO peers, but quite a few for a country of 1.3 million.
Also, this year over 50% of the women conscripts decided to join the regular army. At present there are 336 women serving in the active service of the EDF – about 10% of the 3,508 members. The Ministry of Defense would like to see more.
So would Sgt. 1st Class Kristo Pals of EDF’s Cyber Command. Sergeant Pals is also a national defense instructor at Tabasalu High School, outside Tallinn. Military education is offered in 75% of Estonian high schools.
Sergeant Pals makes no bones about the fact that he likes working with – as well as teaching – women as much as, if not more than, men. “I often find that the women, particularly the women I teach and serve with, are more responsible and mature than the men. What they lack in physical strength they make up in morale.”
Petty Officer Tõkke, who currently serves as a public affairs officer, agrees. “In my experience, Estonian women are very independent and perform their duties very well. The women who join the military are much more motivated than their male colleagues,” she says. “After all, they want to be there.”
Estonia is playing catch-up with some of its other NATO partners where women have been serving in front-line units for some time.
Although women have been allowed to join the conscription service since 2013, it was only in 2018 that a bill, signed by then-Defense Minister Jüri Luik, allowed women to apply for service in any branch.
At the same time the ministry undertook an accelerated recruitment program in order to draw more women to join the conscription service.
Now that effort is paying off in a wave of female conscripts, alongside a parallel one of female noncommissioned officers.
A changing society
Estonian society is also catching up with the female-friendly EDF. According to a survey of the general Estonian public taken in 2018, 50% of the respondents agreed that “women are not suited to fighting a war due to their nature and that national defense should remain a field for men.”
“There is definitely more work to be done educating the public that females are suitable for military service and that they are capable of serving alongside men,” concedes Helmuth Martin Reisner, a spokesman for the ministry. “Since the mainstreaming of women into the conscription service only began in earnest in 2018, this idea has not yet fully translated to the general population.”
Another factor in the changing complexion and morale of the EDF has been Russia’s aggressive moves, particularly its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its recent involvement in the civil war between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces, which have boosted Estonia’s defense-mindedness.
According to a report last year nearly 79% of the general population, which includes a large Russian-speaking minority, would be in favor of “armed resistance if Estonia is attacked by any country,” the same percentage as the Estonians’ martial-minded cousins, the Finns. The Finns resisted the Soviet Union when it invaded in 1939.
“Georgia and the Ukraine were definitely a wake-up call for us,” says Ms. Toodu, who works closely with the new wave of female conscripts.
The reasons why women are interested in joining the military service are various. Some see it as a chance for self-development. “Others view it as a chance to get out of their comfort zone,” Ms. Toodu says. But the main reason is the desire to contribute to Estonia’s defense.
Sergeant Pals, the instructor, has no doubts about the combat-readiness of both the female conscripts and regular army soldiers – as well as the female high school students – he teaches and works with. “I hope one day to see a whole unit of women,” he says.
So would Sgt. Geitlin Täht, an infantry instructor with an all-male company. However, she insists, “Character is more important than gender.”