A woman officer has, for the first time, taken over the command of an independent unit in the sensitive Ladakh sector where India and China have been locked in a lingering border row for almost three years, officials familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Colonel Geeta Rana has taken charge of an independent field workshop in a forward and remote location in eastern Ladakh, the officials said, adding that the officer is the latest in a series of women officers who have been selected for command roles.

She is from the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME). Rana’s appointment comes after the army, in February-end, began assigning women officers to command roles for the first time, outside the medical stream. Around 50 of them are set to head units in operational areas, including forward locations, under the Northern and Eastern Commands that are responsible for guarding India’s borders with China. Some of them have already taken charge.

Rana comes from army background. She is the daughter of a junior commissioned officer from Mahar Regiment. She trained at the Chennai-based Officers’ Training Academy, and was commissioned into the army in 2000. In her 23-year military career, she has served at different places including Sikkim and Jammu and Kashmir. Rana has also served as an instructor at an EME training establishment.

The army conducted a special selection board to promote 108 women officers to the rank of select-grade colonel, a move aimed at bringing about gender parity and offering them command assignments in select branches. As many as 244 women lieutenant colonels were considered by the board for the 108 vacancies.

The women officers assessed by the selection board were from the 1992 to 2006 batch and were commissioned in various arms and services including Engineers, Signals, Army Air Defence, Intelligence Corps, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, and Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The opening of command roles to women became possible only after the army began granting them permanent commission (PC) in 2020.

“Assigning women to command roles is natural career progression after they started getting PC. You can’t give them PC and deprive them of certain important roles. You have to be prepared to give them command responsibilities in the branches they are serving in, and that’s happening now,” former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) earlier said.

In January, army chief General Manoj Pande said the commissioning of women officers in the regiment of artillery was on the cards, while emphasizing that their empowerment was a focus area in which the army had made good progress.

In early January, the army for the first time deployed a woman officer, Captain Shiva Chouhan, at Siachen, the world’s highest and coldest battleground. It also deployed its largest contingent of 27 women peacekeepers in Sudan’s disputed region of Abyei, where they are performing security-related tasks in a challenging mission as part of the United Nations Interim Security Force (UNISFA).

Tanks and combat positions in infantry are still no-go zones for women in the army.

The military has come a long way since it began inducting women as short-service commissioned officers in the early 1990s. Following a gender-neutral approach, the three services are now offering women officers a raft of opportunities to empower them and bridge the gender gap.

The news of Rana’s appointment came a day after Indian Air Force officials said that a woman officer, Group Captain Shaliza Dhami, was set to lead a frontline combat unit, the first for a woman. She will soon take charge of an air defence unit deployed in Punjab and be responsible for tackling aerial threats from Pakistan.

Women officers have made significant advances in the military ever since they were allowed to join the short-service stream more than three decades ago, the officials said. Most of the new opportunities have come their way during the last seven to eight years on the back of a firm push by the armed forces to boost women empowerment and tap Nari Shakti (woman power).

One of the turning points for women in the military came in 2015 when IAF decided to induct them into the fighter stream for the first time.