Not only “those brave boys” are at war against the Russian invasion. According to official figures, there are currently 36,000 women serving in the military – making up to 20% of the Ukrainian army. Every fifth person in a uniform is a woman, but their existence is often overlooked in the language and media. Hearing about the soldiers fighting for the freedom of Ukraine, we automatically think of men, forgetting that thousands of Ukrainian ladies keep fight both the enemy and the discrimination.
When Russia attacked on February 24, both men and women left their homes and took up arms to protect the country. “Beautiful girls in uniforms” such as Ukraine’s Ex-Miss Anastasiia Lenna, 31, who posted a photo with an AK-47 gun on Instagram, openly challenged Russia.
Near the front line in Donbas, Ukraine, 24-year-old Tanja operates a radio station tasked with providing communication to soldiers at the front. This brave warrior joined the army six years ago, at the age of eighteen, against the wishes of her parents: “I joined because I had to. If not me, who? ” – she asks. – “I am proud to serve in the military. I knew my family wouldn’t like it, so I didn’t tell my mother and just went to sign up. After that, there was no turning back.
Alla Akimova, 39, decided two years ago to join the war effort and be close to her husband. She works in the kitchen preparing food for soldiers at a military post near Zolote. “I was home with my kids for years,” she explains. “But they are all adults now and I want to help here. I couldn’t go to war with little children.”
HISTORY AND STATISTICS
Women – both in uniforms and without them – have been at the center of the fight against Russian aggression since 2014, when Moscow decided to annex Crimea and backed separatists in the Donbas region. Women now account for almost 20% of the Ukrainian armed forces, a figure that has increased 15 times in just ten years. About half of them are soldiers serving alongside men in combat positions, and the other half work in civilian support roles. They enjoy “equal rights” with their male counterparts under the 2018 Act. From 2019, they can study at military academies to achieve higher degrees. But while it is easier for women to pursue a career in the armed forces than it used to be, challenges remain.
The Ukrainian army granted women the right to fight in combat positions only in 2016. Previously, they were allowed to work as nurses, secretaries, seamstresses and cooks, although in reality they often took on duties reserved for men without receiving adequate benefits. Hanna Hrytsenko is a freelance researcher and part of the “Invisible Battalion” project in Ukraine investigating the role of women in the military. Hrytsenko claims that “traditional gender roles are difficult to change.” They are a legacy of the Soviet times, when the state’s demographic priorities were to encourage women to focus on giving birth and raising children. As a result, women had to fight for the right to defend the country on the front lines.
The policy shift came thanks to lobbying efforts by veteran women such as Olena Biłozerska, a sniper who served as a volunteer at many hotspots in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2016.
“In the first two years of the war, the soldiers on the front lines were very surprised when they saw a female warrior,” says Mrs. Biłozerska, the heroine of the documentary film “Invisible Battalion”, which sparked a wider discussion about the role of women in the military and the needs of veterans.
Iryna Suslowa, the leader of the “MAJBUTNE” women’s movement, former member of the Ukrainian parliament, where she chairs the subcommittee on gender equality and discrimination, believes that the situation has improved over time. “Until five years ago, women could not be tankers, snipers, participate in subversive and reconnaissance groups, work in infantry,” says Suslova, adding: “But the greatest challenge remains the fight against sexual violence.”
As part of the “Invisible Battalion” project, the aforementioned researcher Hanna Hrytsenko documented cases of sexual harassment as well as rapes of female soldiers by men.
The sniper rifle Olena Biłozerska acquired her shooting skills in the forests of Kiev. She was taught by her husband, a military veteran who had predicted the conflict with Russia ten years in advance. When she first appeared at the front, her colleagues wondered if she was a doctor or a nurse. Today, her reputation overtakes her and makes her a constant target of Russian online trolls and pro-Putin propaganda.
“Over time, everyone got used to female fighters on the front line,” adds Biłozerska, who later trained as a military officer and commanded a self-propelled artillery platoon in Donetsk for two years. “This is normal.”
The sniper observes the beginning of a cultural change in the Ukrainian army. Women volunteers, unlike contracted soldiers, served on the front lines by choice, often under extremely dangerous conditions. Commanders wanted to keep those who showed high skill and motivation, regardless of gender. And as folk wisdom says, “The best commando will never be braver than a woman defending her homeland for her own children.”
By March 2021, 257 women received state decorations for their combat service during the Donbas war – nine of these awards were awarded posthumously.
According to UN data from 2021, there are currently over 36,000 women serving in the Ukrainian armed forces – in combat specialties, including armored vehicle shooters, infantry commanders, and snipers. About 13,000 women serve as combatants and 900 female officers in command, including 109 platoon commanders and 12 company commanders.
MOBILIZATION OF WOMEN
In December last year, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense issued an official order extending the scope of the conscription of women in the event of a war situation. The notice summoned women between the ages of 18 and 60 who were “fit for military service” to register with the Ukrainian armed forces.
Ukrainian women, such as 46-year-old Natalya Barsuk, an economist from Kiev, and Ukrainian MP Oleksandra Ustinova, described the military service of women in 2021 and the decisions to train as many people as possible as logical, given Russia’s continued aggression. “This sends a powerful signal to Moscow that the Ukrainians are ready to resist.”
“It is very good that women have started to be considered and prepared for war, giving them basic combat training, such as the use of weapons and self-defense,” said Liudmyła Bileka, a 31-year-old combat medic who trains Ukrainian soldiers in the war zone in giving first aid.
Nadia Babych entered service in 2017 “for the same reasons as men.” In the last five years, Mrs. Babych has achieved the rank of junior sergeant and has given birth to her second daughter. She believes that her motivation for service is no different from that of male soldiers. “Women have the same reasons as men to join,” he says. “We are here to protect our country, our families.” That’s why this mother of two fights in the front line trenches near the city of Zolote in eastern Ukraine. On her right hand she wears engagement and wedding rings, the same hand she uses for firing a gun. About his companions in the service, she says: “The guys treat me normally as they treat themselves. There is no difference. “
But there are other voices as well.
DISCRIMINATION OF WOMEN IN THE ARMY
Julia Mykytenko is a reserve officer who joined in 2016 to defend her country in a war with Russia in eastern Ukraine. She mentions that initially there were very few women, but with time that number began to increase.
Mykytenko spent the first year at headquarters on the second front line. Later, she completed a three-month officer course, after which she obtained the military rank of “motorized infantry platoon commander”. Only then was she allowed to the front line.
“I wanted to fight for my country’s independence. It was really hard because I wasn’t treated like a soldier, but like a girl. At first, they didn’t even want to put me on guard. I proved that I can do it.”
Mykytenko welcomes the updated law on military registration. In her opinion, women who have always wanted to join the military will be able to do so more easily. “This is an opportunity for women who have previously wanted to register but were unable to do so,” she says.
Referring to her colleague who commanded the mortar unit, she says that women may be physically weaker than men, it does not have to be a barrier.
“Women in the military face gender-based discrimination,” said one respondent in the Invisible Battalion study, which found women terrorized by sexual assault and harassment and placed in low-paid and low-ranking positions.
Another woman confessed, “Every man I met in the battalion said I should be home and have children.”
Anna Kvit, a Kiev-based gender equality expert and co-author of the study, says army women’s situation has improved since the report was published. She adds, however, that female soldiers still face poor visibility, discrimination, and inadequate uniforms and shoes. A UN study on Ukrainian women in the military, published in 2016, found that female soldiers had to wear men’s shoes and uniforms or obtain appropriate clothing themselves and were not provided with women’s hygiene products.
On shoes: In July 2021, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was exposed to international laughter and protests after the publication of press releases depicting dozens of female cadets marching in uniform and in high heels during a military parade rehearsal in Kiev.
“Walking in the heat in high heels on our roads, the military risks injury, damage to the shins and ligaments,” wrote Inna Sovsun, an oppositionist on Facebook. “And what for? To make someone else’s stereotypes about the only role of a woman as a beautiful doll a reality?”
“Pictures of a unit consisting entirely of women in high heels create a social message that women are isolated in the military and separated from men.” Anna Kvit added. “Apart from health issues and the question of the usefulness of such footwear in the army, this is utterly ridiculous and contrary to Ukraine’s promises to integrate women into the military sector and promote gender equality,” said Kvit
The pictures have sparked a debate about equipment for women in the Ukrainian army and the failure of the military to better integrate women into the armed forces, despite the desired changes in recent years. Many voices of indignation forced the ministry to change its plans. As a result, women from the Ukrainian armed forces on August 24, 2021 marched in the 30th anniversary parade of independence from the Soviet Union in normal military footwear.
ALL HANDS ON BOARD
Andrey Vitaliovych and his wife Paulina, the parents of a little daughter, have worked in the trenches in separate departments during the last eight years of war. The growing number of Ukrainian women in uniform means more married couples serving on the front lines. “There is no problem with women in the army,” says Vitaliovych, a junior sergeant from the 24th Mechanized Brigade in Zołote. “We need them.”
“If we were in a peaceful position, I would say that maybe women don’t have to be in the military because there are enough men,” says Sergeant Vitaliovych. His words are interrupted by incoming rocket fire. “But we have a war, so it is important that all Ukrainians – men, women, everyone – defend our country.”
Such a fighting spirit was shown by the courageous “babushka” in the south of Ukraine. In a video circulating on the Internet, she is seen confronting two heavily armed Russians. The brave lady firmly demands an explanation of their actions: “What the f *** are you doing in our country?” she screams. One of the soldiers tries to persuade the woman not to escalate the situation, but she persists: “From now on you are cursed, I tell you! Put the sunflower seeds in your pocket and they will grow out of your corpse on our Ukrainian soil! “
This video of a woman’s resistance became a social media hit, comforting millions of people terrified by the current situation.