Near the frontline in Donbas, Ukraine, 24-year-old Anastasia is a radio station operator, tasked with making sure that soldiers at the front are able to communicate with each other.
Stationed near the city of Mayorsk, where several soldiers have lost their lives in recent months, she joined up six years ago against the wishes of her parents,
“I joined because I had to. If not me, who?” she asked.
“I am proud of serving in the military. It is my purpose. I knew that my family would not like it if I joined, so I didn’t tell my mom and just went to sign up. After that point, there was no turning back.”
Alla Akimova, 38, works in the kitchen preparing food for the soldiers and decided to join to help out in the war and be close to her husband.
“I used to be home with the children,” she explained at a military post near Zolote. “But they are all grown up now, and I want to help make a difference here. I could not go to war while having young children.”
A total of 23 percent of Ukraine’s army are women, according to numbers released by the Ministry of Defence, a number that has increased 15-fold in just ten years. Around half of them are soldiers while the other half work in civilian support roles.
In 2008, only 1,800 women served in the Ukrainian military, a number that rose to 23,000 in 2017, 24,487 in 2018, 27,074 in 2019, and 29,760 women in 2020.
Unsurprisingly that rapid growth is due to the conflict with Russia, which began after Moscow annexed Crimea and supported separatists in the Donbas. But while it is easier for women to make their career in the armed forces than it used to be, challenges remain.
A Soviet legacy
“The traditional gender roles still exist, and they are difficult to change. It is not a single thing, because it is about traditions,” Hanna Hrytsenko is an independent researcher and part of the Invisible Battalion project in Ukraine, researching women’s role in the military.
“People are accustomed to a certain life and don’t see that it needs to change,” she said.
Hrytsenko said that gender roles are a hangover from the Soviet era when the demographic priorities of the state were to encourage women to focus on childbirth and child-rearing. As a result, women tend to be pushed into medical or office work, Hrytsenko said.
“But things are slowly changing,” she added.
Anastasia wants to be on the frontline – but she expects it to be a challenge.
“There are things that women cannot so easily be allowed to do, like being on the frontline. Not all women are allowed to go there because a lot of men do not like it,” she said.
It is not always the conflict that makes the frontline dangerous for women. With the Invisible Battalion project, Hrytsenko has documented cases of sexual harassment that include namecalling, teasing, and touching – but also incidents of rape of female soldiers by their male colleagues.
The problem is likely to be a great deal more widespread than official statistics suggest, she said, with many victims reluctant to come forward.
“Women can only defend themselves physically at the moment or leave the army when something happens,” Hrytsenko said.
“Even though thousands of women are working in the army, this conservative and patriarchic system persists. The system is often not designed to take care of women, who often have nowhere to go with their complaints.”
Iryna Suslova, the leader of the women’s movement «ZA MAJBUTNE» a 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 sabotage and reconnaissance groups, work in the infantry,” Suslova said.
But she says combatting sexual violence remains the biggest challenge, and not just in Ukraine.
“This problem is very common all over the world and in countries where there are military conflicts. Unfortunately, Ukraine is no exception. It is necessary to set up hotlines, create lines of trust, work, investigate and prosecute, which unfortunately is not the case now, despite the fact that such cases exist. They are public, but the cases are not very well-investigated.”
Military medic Iryna Bazykina is one of the few who has come forward in the media and told of her experience. She recently told Radio Liberty that after she requested to go to the frontline a commander asked her to come to his home to discuss her future.
There, she claimed, he attacked her. Bazykina said the military tried to prevent her from filing a case, and when she did, it was closed “for insufficient evidence.”
Trying to change things
Victoria Arnautova, an adviser to the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on gender issues, commented in March on claims about rape in the Ukrainian army, saying that the government is developing international mechanisms to combat harassment.
“We are studying the legislation, analysing internal documents, how best to develop this mechanism, which would include ways to file complaints, protect the rights of participants in the process.
“It is necessary to launch such mechanisms as confidentiality and anonymity, the ability to consider cases without publicity. This is a very stigmatised area not only for the armed forces but also for the whole society,” Victoria Arnautova told Radio Liberty.
In March, Lyubov Humeniuk, Chief Specialist of the Department of Military Education, Science, Social and Humanitarian Policy of the Ministry of Defence, said that the ministry is working on making more areas accessible to the women in the military.
“There are restrictions on access to officer positions in the part that legally protects the reproductive function of women. These are positions related to the use of explosives, poisonous substances, diving work, firefighting, as well as submarines and surface ships, with the exception of positions of moral, psychological, and medical support, as well as individual positions in Special Forces. Currently, work is underway to open positions for women servicemen in these units,” she said, according to Ukrinform.
Euronews contacted the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine for comment but no response had been received at the time of publication.
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