In the end, Latvia decided on mandatory conscription for men alone, but in the first draft 11 of the initial 488 voluntary applicants were women (subsequent drafts will be compulsory for men, although women can apply voluntarily.) The number might seem modest at first glance but on closer inspection, the country is doing surprisingly well in attracting female recruits. Better than its Baltic neighbors and most other NATO member states, in fact.
Latvia has comparatively good female representation within the Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF). The female share of the Latvian army has held stable above 15% for the past decade. As of now, women make up 16.5% of the army’s total military personnel — from a total of 6,700— and an ambitious 2026 goal aims to make this 25%. Among the National Guard, a voluntary element of LNAF of around 10,000 troops, women accounted for an even more impressive 20% share last year.
NATO’s female average average rose from 10.5% in 2013 to 13% in 2020. Such statistics have shown Latvia at the forefront of the alliance for some years and it has uninterruptedly ranked within NATO’s top ten since joining the alliance. In 2020, the country had greater female representation than 19 NATO members, including Norway, Spain, Germany, and the UK, and shared seventh place with Canada.
Latvia is also an outperformer in the Baltics. It is the absolute leader, ahead of Lithuania, with 12.2%, and even further ahead of Estonia, with 9%.
Statistically, women have better career prospects in the Latvian military than the NATO average, although hurdles remain. They still lag in military career development behind their male peers, and non-combat duties are predominantly designated to women. But things have been changing.
Reestablished in 1994 following Latvia’s restoration of independence, LNAF is a young institution. The country has had only three decades to rebuild its state defense system from scratch and to raise today’s officers.
In 2020, Latvia appointed its first woman colonel, Ilze Žilde. After 26 years in the military, she is ranked a senior military officer and is currently seconded to the US as Latvia’s military attaché. Promotion to the rank of colonel takes 21-23 years in the US and around the same timeframe worldwide.
Žilde’s military path was more a choice than a vocation at first. The 1990s were exhausting for Latvians, much as for other post-Soviet peoples. The rapid transition from a command to a market economy led to skyrocketing inflation and unemployment. Joining the fledgling armed forces was a rational choice, providing secure employment and a stable income.
She has never regretted joining up and now sees a considerable increase in serving women and an improved attitude among male colleagues.
There are now 11 female lieutenant colonels (from six in 2019) who occupy roles ranging from Commander of the Airspace Surveillance Squadron, and Commander of the National Armed Forces Joint Headquarters Battalion. Other new roles are opening up, with women now serving in the Honor Guard, which carries out ceremonial duties.
The fourth decade of the LNAF is likely to see an accelerating pace of advancement, including the acceptance of women into more combat roles. Catching up with its Scandinavian neighbors can provide additional motivation — Denmark recently assigned the first female major general to command the multinational division “North.”
This is not just about representation; there are solid reasons to encourage women into the military sphere including broadening the talent pool. Warfare has changed; armed forces do not need to be so reliant on physical might, and indeed such differences are wholly irrelevant when it comes to skills like drone operations and cyber warfare as well as traditional roles like aviation and command. Women can provide new capacities to fill the personnel shortage – a pressing issue in the Latvian and other European armies.
Evija Djatkovica is the Deputy Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga. She is a researcher and PhD student at Riga Stradins University. Her research focuses on Eastern European countries, particularly Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, as well as Central Asia and hard and soft security in the Baltic Sea region. Recently she conducted field research in the war-affected areas of Ukraine.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.