Girl Gurkhas

Recruitment of women into the British Gurkha Brigade is on hold, but women who trained remain hopeful

Photographs Narendra Shrestha and text Monika Deupala

Deepa Ghising remembers being fascinated by how professionally soldiers of the Nepal Army handled clashes during the 2017 elections, and defused the situation. She decided there and then on a military career.

“Their uniforms, bearing, and the way they conducted themselves was so impressive I decided that I would also become a solider one day,” the 20-year-old recalls.

So, when the UK Defence Ministry announced in 2018 that the Gurkha Brigade would start recruiting Nepali women for the first time, Ghising was among the 500 young women across Nepal who started training in private centres.

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Nepali men have been serving in the elite Gurkhas since 1815, earning an unparalleled reputation for bravery in battle. Every year, thousands of young Nepali men still sign up for arduous physical tests to join the legendary force, in hopes of embarking on an adventurous career that includes a solid income, pension and the possibility of settling in the UK.

It is only natural that young women would also be attracted to the Gurkhas, as was Ghising. “It was freezing cold but I enjoyed every bit of the hard winter training sessions, including running, push-ups and sit-ups,” she recalls.

Swostika Ranamagar, 19, joined a training centre after the news that the Gurkha Brigade would take 800 female soldiers. “I was in high school and had to skip morning classes for the training,” she said.

Boxing champion Alisha Tamang, 19, started training more than a year ago, and remembers how bad she felt when a Parliament Committee in March decided not to allow Nepali women to be recruited by the British Army.

“The news of cancellation made us all feel really low, but the training was not in vain. We have built up our self-confidence, we now know what army training is like, and we can now take the tests for the Nepal Army too,” Tamang said.

Among the private companies specialising in preparing recruits is Salute Gorkha Training Centre in Kathmandu, and it warned the women that it was not yet confirmed that the British Army could be taking Nepali women.

“After Parliament cancelled it, we saw many young girls in tears, but at the same time most of them were determined to be in the Army. They were physically and mentally capable to handle the news,” recalls Ramesh Pandey, a trainer at Salute.

Parliament’s International Relations Committee announced the cancellation in a press release in March. Committee Chairman Pabitra Niraula told Nepali Times this week: “The timing was not right. Both governments are still working on resolving the issues of ex-Gurkhas.”

Niraula added: “We still are addressing former Gurkha soldiers’ demands for justice and equality, and to solve their problems first. At such a critical period we can’t just send off females and let them face the same problems.”

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Nepali Gurkha veterans have long been demanding that they receive the same compensation as their British counterparts, both during active duty and after retirement. Britain recently increased Gurkha pensions 10-34%, but some veterans continue advocating for an even better deal.

The British Gurkha base in Kathmandu says it continues to discuss the treatment of veterans with the Nepal Government, along with future recruitment, of both men and women.

Retired British Gurkha soldier Prem Kumar Rai believes that all recruitment under current conditions should end. “If the UK government is treating British Gurkhas unequally, and the Nepal Government accepts that, then this is colonialism in a new form,” he said. “Recruitment of Nepalis by a foreign army is not a solution for unemployment. Even male recruitment must be stopped.”

Prime Minister Oli proposed to the UK government during his visit to London last month to replace the trilateral treaty between India Britain and Nepal on Gurkha recruitment with a bilateral one. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also firm on not discussing female recruitment into the Brigade of Gurkhas until the pension issue has been satisfactorily settled. Spokesman Suresh Adhikary told us: “There is very little chance that the women’s recruitment issue will be resolved until the other broader issues have been sorted out.”

However, that position is obviously not supported by the thousands of young Nepali men and women who continue to throng training centres to prepare for the gruelling annual physical tests and interviews to be among the chosen few in the British Army.

The British Government had in the past recruited Nepali women for the Gurkhas Brigade: in the 1960s a small number were taken in as nurses, and in 2007 it was announced that the Brigade would recruit women soldiers, but that did not materialise.

Ghising, Ranamagar and Tamang have not given up hope. They are still waiting for the Nepal government to lift the ban on Nepali women joining the British Army in 2021.