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Taiwan's military trains female reservist soldiers for the first time in its history

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now. Taiwan is trying to strengthen its defenses against mainland China. And for the first time, the government of the island has started training female reservists. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

UNIDENTIFIED DRILL SERGEANT: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: A drill sergeant yells at volunteer reservists in camouflage as they duck, point and shoot in a practice drill just outside the Taiwanese city of Taoyuan. Among them are 14 women.

LUBOYING SUNGMINGTUMNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Our drills are the exact same as the men's. Why should there be a gender difference?" asks one of them, named Luboying Sungmingtumni. The military says getting more women trained for Taiwan's reserve forces is important because, while the island does have a full-time military, it's tiny - just 190,000 people compared to its 1.6 million reservists. But until this year, only the male reservists got trained. Sungmingtumni is a bit special. She was actually in the military and retired four years ago. But when reserve training started this year for women, she and the 13 other women signed up.

LUBOYING SUNGMINGTUMNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "I'm older. And my physical ability has declined," she jokes. But she says she saw others stepping up to protect Taiwan. And when duty called her, she answered. And Taiwan needs her as part of efforts to drastically boost its defenses against a more aggressive China. Taiwan's already lengthened compulsive military service for men from four months to a year. It's beefed up the reservist training curriculum as well. And now the reserve forces are finally training women after years of heated debate about gender equality in Taiwan's legislature. But Taiwan's military will only take women who have served in the military before, like Sungmingtumni. And strong gender norms remain even among female officers.

DENG YUQI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Logistics officer Deng Yuqi shows me around a mobile shower tent reservists use and explains when the machinery has issues, they ask the men for help because they are the experts. Women don't understand such things, she says. That kind of statement infuriates many women. More are volunteering. And given the interest and the need, Taiwan's military says it is planning more military training for women this year.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taoyuan, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "OCCASIONAL MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.

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