Ukrainian women in arms


Patrick Le Trehondat

Ukrainian women in arms

Sometimes you catch a glimpse of them in the corner of an image. And yet one in five members of the Ukrainian armed forces is a woman (more than in the American or French armies, at 15%). More than 15% of them are directly involved at the front. The incursion and presence of women in the Ukrainian army at this level is primarily the result of the events of Maïdan in 2014.

The Maïdan turning point

At the start of the Maïdan revolution in 2014, the role of women in the confrontation with the authorities was largely reduced to reproductive tasks (cooking, cleaning, caring for the wounded, etc.). Women and children were asked to leave the square as soon as night fell. Although, according to Olga Onuch, almost half of those taking part in the protest were women. For Anastasiya Melnychenko, it was clear that "women were not seen as fully responsible individuals". Nina Potarska accuses "it was so humiliating to hear something like 'ladies, give the men a bit of pleasure, they need to relax...', instead of thanking the women for their involvement in Maïdan alongside the men, they were offered an escort service". Yet as Dmitriyeva observed, "even during the most violent clashes, when there were men who insisted that women should not be on the barricades, but women joined in the clashes and threw Molotov cocktails as if it were the most natural thing to do... they were also attacked, beaten, assaulted and killed by the Berkut [riot police]." A journalist from Elle magazine observed that "in the increasingly violent demonstrations at Euromaidan, women are wearing gas masks and padded waistcoats to fight alongside the men". And in the face of attempts to exclude them, women are forming their own self-defence units, first in Ternopil and Lviv, then in Kyiv, with the 39e Women's Self-Defence Centurie and the Zaporijia Women's Squadron. The Olha Kobylianska Centurie[1] was set up by left-wing and trade union activists after women were expelled from the barricades by men. The centurie has a non-hierarchical structure and offers self-defence courses for women.  Its best-known leaders, feminists and defenders of the LBTQI cause, were Olena Shevchenko, Nadia Parfan, Maria Berlins'ka and Nina Potarska. Kateryna Chepurа, a feminist activist, explained: "The women's platoon was created because of the gender politics of Maïdan. Our organisation existed before Maïdan. We've been here for four years, and there were 100 of us at Maïdan. The problem was that when the girls came to Maidan to do something, we had a problem with the fact that for the self-defence of Maidan the guys [told them], "You're women, you shouldn't be here, go home." That was exactly why we created a women's platoon: to make our presence at Maidan official. We could then show our capacity for self-defence and say: "Dude, I'm in self-defence just like you, so I've got the right to be here". Even if it didn't solve all the problems, it made things a bit easier for us. For Olga Kobylyanska, these training courses were based on the values of "human rights, human dignity, freedom, equality and non-discrimination" and were designed to put into practice "the commitment of women to the protest movement and to supporting Euromaidan, based on the principles of solidarity, fraternity [and sisterhood] and mutual respect". According to Anna Kovalenko, 150 women joined the 39e Women's Self-Defence Centurie in three days. They took part in the clashes in Grushevsky street [where violent clashes took place], and resisted the police. They would later call on women to join the armed forces. These women's combat formations were criticised by some feminists on the grounds that they reproduced a military-patriarchal system and behaviour. One of the political difficulties faced by the women's centuries was the active presence of the extreme right. As well as being hostile to the presence of women, the "values" they defended were fundamentally opposed to those of the centuries.  But the far right was particularly present and effective in confrontations with the police and occupied the front lines. As a result, centuries was careful to distance itself from the rhetoric and protest methods of extreme right-wing groups. For Olena Shevchenko of LGBT rights organisation Insight (ГО Инсайт), there was no ambiguity. "The activity of Pravyï sektor [Right Sector, extreme right] can be explained very easily. The Ukrainian ultra-right felt that this was the right time to attack and dictate an agenda. However, this agenda has nothing to do with defending human rights. The ultra-right showed their agenda: strengthening the power of a strong president, adopting the national constitution and, of course, traditionalism. In this discourse, there is no place for equality, feminism or LGBT rights in Ukraine.

At the end of January 2014, a group of feminists led by Nadia Parfan organised a Night of Women's Solidarity on Kyiv's Maidan Square. The Night of Women's Solidarity is advertised by colourful handmade posters with photographs of women illustrating all the activities undertaken by women on the square. The event, designed to draw attention to the importance of women's contribution to the protests, concludes with a women's march across the Maidan to the rhythm of loud drumming and singing, while chanting "Svoboda, Rivnist', Zhinocha Solidarnist'!" [Freedom, Equality, Solidarity! [Freedom, Equality, Women's Solidarity]. At the end of the march, megaphone in hand, a female speaker declared: "Today, we are shouting out that Yanukovych is not the only evil, there is a very specific evil, which we call patriarchy. We invite all of you, men and women... to protest not only against Yanukovych, but against the perverse system he represents. So we say: Down with Yanukovych! Down with patriarchy! For the feminists Tetiana Buryechak and Olena Petrenko, the demonstration saw women "acting and speaking consciously, autonomously and as active subjects of history". "The Maïdan women became visible not as mere 'helpers' but as full participants in the revolution in a way that helped to overturn patriarchal discourses", explained another participant. "This time, women and young women in particular have expressed much more of their desire to be part of the revolution, to be more than just those who feed and care for the revolutionaries, and they have denounced sexism wherever they have seen it", observes Dmitriyeva. Following the Maïdan, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of the war in the Donbass, many women joined the army. A new battle is opening up to defend their rights within the Ukrainian army.

Women in combat

Since 1998, the year in which the first women donned their uniforms, their numbers have steadily increased, but most often in positions that men did not want to occupy and often the least well paid (nursing, management, logistics or communications). However, seven years later, in 2015, the Minister for Defence could proudly announce that 14,500 women were members of the armed forces, 30,500 had employee status and 2,000 held officer rank. That same year, 938 women were serving on the front line in the Donbass. However, women's access to combat positions remained limited. In 2015, Igor Zakrevsky, deputy director of recruitment for the Sumy region, made a statement to this effect: "In accordance with the law, we have the right to offer military service to women. However, at the moment we only have vacancies for tank commanders, mechanics and tank drivers. I can't imagine a woman occupying this position (...) If you're lucky enough to have been born a man, you have your whole life to prove to the representatives of the second half of humanity who were lucky enough to have been born women, that you are a real man. There is no better way of proving this than by testing yourself under difficult military conditions". An assertion that the war, seven years later, would cruelly refute. The fact remains that women in uniform faced many difficulties. The Invisible Battalion (discussed below) noted in a 2016 report that "the infrastructure of the Ukrainian armed forces is designed for the needs of men and thus excludes women with their specific needs in the army" and added, at a time when the clashes in the Donbass were particularly violent, "therefore, it must change, so that the army can properly integrate women and allow them to participate effectively in hostilities on an equal footing, to get along with men and satisfy their wishes and opportunities, to defend their values". During this period, the Ministry of Defence published decrees listing the positions that could be filled by women. Relying on the Labour Code, which excludes women from certain professions (500), the army is at liberty to refuse certain positions to women soldiers. Nataliya Dubtchak notes, for example, that "a 1993 law... prohibits women from working with explosives, so a woman could not be assigned to a post, for example, as a miner or deminer (or other specific military professions)...". Another area "that is forbidden to women. This is service in special units. Assault troops, rapid intervention units directly involved in combat operations". In its 2019-2020 White Paper, the Ministry of Defence specified another of several job bans: "At present, female personnel are not permitted to hold officer positions related to the use of toxic substances, on submarines and surface ships (except for roles related to medicine and psychology)", while adding that "measures are taken to continuously raise awareness of gender equality among military personnel" and that "gender policy is one of the most important aspects of the universal principle of equality which promotes the maximum realisation of social opportunities for women and men in improving national defence capabilities and operational readiness, which is a priority of the Ministry of Defence. ". For the invisible Battalion the State "has created a significant difference in the financial resources allocated to women and men who are employed in the same segment of the labour market. When it prohibits certain types of work for women, justifying its concern about their reproductive [function], it recognises and gives greater value to women as mothers and undermines the role of women as workers. As a result, the ban ignores the reproductive role of men, who are unfairly regarded as invulnerable. The ban also conveys gender stereotypes: men are seen as foolproof and women as excessively fragile people who must have children". Six months into the war, Kateryna Pryimak of the UWVM explained in a conversation in August 2022 that by chance her association with the Invisible Battalion had secured the opening up of 63 combat positions to women before 24 February, and "we had done a lot of work to ensure that women could apply to the Ivan Bohun military school, for example, by allowing young girls to choose to become military officers in the Ukrainian armed forces[2] ". But her observation is cruel: "There is still an enduring and mouldy sexism in the army, even if the war has changed that a lot."

Despite these obstacles, many women still joined the army and fought on the front line in Donbass. However, other difficulties awaited them, in particular the unsuitability of military equipment. For example, the size of military fatigues or shoes was not adapted to their size, and women often had to mend them or even buy their equipment themselves in order to get the right size of fatigues or shoes. The same applied to bullet-proof waistcoats designed for men. It was only in October 2021 that we learned that the Ukrainian National Guard had asked the Ukrainian manufacturer Balistyka to develop a bullet-proof waistcoat for women, and they were going to work on it. However, "tests have not yet begun: the developers have explained that they are only carrying out preliminary tests", announced the manufacturer. It is doubtful that things have changed since then, and at the time of the attack on 24 February, the problem remained unresolved. The Association of Women Veterans (see below) stated on that occasion that "the needs of these women [soldiers] must be taken into account at the level of public policy, in particular, gender-sensitive equipment must be developed and provided". "Another question concerned separate or shared accommodation, and if shared, how comfortable this situation was for women. We learned from the answers [to a survey] that sometimes women have to share a room with men in the army, and in some cases they have separate accommodation," adds the Invisible Battalion. Female soldiers tell us: "It was difficult at first because there was no place where I could be alone. I was the only woman in the barracks. It was particularly difficult for the first two weeks. It was winter. I was always cold. There were forty men in the barracks. It was hard to get used to the fact that you couldn't sleep like you did at home - so you had to sleep in your clothes. There were no locks in the showers. So I'd ask someone I trusted to watch the door. But then I got used to it," says one. Another explains, "The guys made me private toilets and guarded the showers when I washed." Finally, another says: "They offered to put up a separate tent for the women, but none of us agreed, and then everyone got used to it. At my previous posting, I had a separate tent." However, these accounts of the possible arrangements for male and female soldiers to live together should be treated with caution. "All the men I met in the battalion said I had to be at home, giving birth to children," explains one soldier. "Oh, I hear it every day, every day. Even my husband [a soldier himself] says to me: 'Stay at home, do your sewing'" A military nurse remembers: "Once some army doctors arrived, they'd had a lot to drink. They said what are you doing here, you belong in the kitchen. Look at the stove, you're no good at anything else". Sexist stereotypes can also manifest themselves in a condescending attitude: "There's nothing humiliating about being over-protective," says one soldier. "In my opinion, they protect me too much and try not to take me on the most interesting missions, which are the most dangerous," lamented another. "I often heard: 'You're a woman, stay at home and cook borscht'. I hated it, but it was motivating. Every time I heard that, I proved that I didn't belong in the kitchen," concludes another. The Invisible Battalion survey reveals that one in ten servicemen and women feel that they have been sexually harassed on more than one occasion. In 2018, Lieutenant Valeria Sikal lodged a complaint with the military prosecutor's office against her commanding officer for sexual harassment. The case caused quite a stir. She was the first woman to denounce sexual harassment in the Ukrainian army. The victim of a hate campaign, she was forced to resign and took refuge in Poland. On Facebook, the Invisible Battalion (2020) published numerous testimonies from women who had been sexually assaulted in the barracks. A hashtag #ГоворитиНеМожнаМовчати ((#Don't keep silent) is created because as the Invisible Battalion states "given that sexual harassment in general, and sexual harassment in the military in particular, is perceived as taboo, it is common for victims or witnesses not to report cases in which they have been involved." The association proposes to "develop and implement a mechanism for filing complaints of harassment of military men and women in the workplace". The Invisible Battalion's 32 proposals also include "updating military statutes by adding gender-sensitive terminology" and "creating non-governmental organisations and associations of military women to protect their rights".

The invisible battalion

Before 24 February, the date of the large-scale war unleashed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, thousands of women were known to have fought in the Donbass - the figure of 7,000 is put forward.  The Invisible Battalion was born in 2015 out of a sociological study coordinated by Maria Berlinska, herself a former soldier, on the participation of women in the Donbass war in eastern Ukraine. The survey revealed a number of problems that we mentioned above, many of which are reflected in the testimonies that we are quoting. The findings of this research led to an exhibition of fifty portraits of Ukrainian women fighters at the Ukrainian Parliament and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. Later, a feature-length documentary, Invisible Battalion, was made: six stories of women who were (or are) fighters in Eastern Ukraine. The documentary highlights the life of Andriana Susak, aged 29. A former demonstrator from Maïddan, she was a member of assault troops on the front line in Donbass until she left the army five months pregnant. She had to don a black balaclava to hide her gender during an operation to retake the Ukrainian town of Shchastia in 2014, after her commander refused her permission to fight. At the time, she was listed in official documents as a head seamstress. The film was shown throughout Ukraine. Marina Usmanova of the Kherson LGBT centre (whose testimony we publish in this volume) explains that her centre organised a screening of the film before 24 February. It was also shown in Paris and Lyon. Today, the Invisible Battalion has a website that sets out the association's objectives: "to promote legislative changes that guarantee women equal rights and opportunities in Ukraine, particularly in the security and defence sector; to defend gender equality and women's rights; to carry out research and analysis in favour of women's equality in society in general and in law enforcement and the armed forces in particular". An association of women veterans [from the Donbass] (UWVM) has also been set up, with the aim of "defending and protecting the rights of women veterans and active [female] military personnel".

On the front line

According to some estimates, 30,000 women are currently fighting on Russia's battlefields. The TRT newspaper reports that an unprecedented number of Ukrainian women are "serving and fighting in virtually all of Ukraine's military formations and in the armed forces and national guard." The necessities of war have overturned regulations and job assignments and various restrictions on the positions that women can occupy. One of them explains, "I mine and clear mines. Sometimes I can be a sniper. On paper I help fire rocket launchers. But we all know how to do everything". Last August, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence announced the number of military casualties on the front. No details were given on the gender breakdown of these losses.  The information was repeated in the press, indicating the number of "casualties in men" on the Ukrainian side. This invisibility of women combatants is not exclusive to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. In many conflicts, where women die in combat with weapons in their hands, they disappear from the statistics. To complete this invisibility, Valery Zaloujny, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian army, even declared last August that Ukrainian children needed special attention because their fathers had gone to the front and "were probably among nearly 9,000 heroes who had been killed". A very gendered form of attention or concealment, you might say.

Female soldiers captured by the Russians suffered special treatment because of their gender. Two examples among many. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Centre (June 2021) "female prisoners of war were held in the Sizo prison in Donetsk [in the "Donetsk People's Republic"] in appalling conditions. In cells designed for 2-3 people, up to 20 women were imprisoned, with a bucket instead of a toilet and no possibility of washing. Released female prisoners of war report psychological pressure, with men beaten in front of them, and they were also forced to have sex." These were 86 women combatants.

Last April, a prisoner exchange led to the release of soldiers, including 15 women prisoners who returned home with shaven heads. The symbolism of the shaved head was clearly intended to "humiliate and degrade the prisoner". During their captivity, they were forced to undress in the presence of men and to squat for hours. It was then that the Russian guards shaved their heads and subjected them to countless interrogations, day and night. One of them said: "The prison guards lined us up and tried to break our morale. One of them kept shouting "Glory to Russia!" He came up to each woman's face, spat and shouted this slogan over and over again. He probably expected one of us to break down and respond to his "salute". Our silence infuriated them... they rewarded us with torture."

2 September 2022

Patrick Le Tréhondat

[1] Olha Kobylianska (1863-1942), Ukrainian novelist and feminist.

[2] Liza Shkrobot was one of the first women to enter the Ivan Bohun Military Academy in September 2019. Along with her, 20 other women were then admitted to the military academy, where they formed a separate group of students (particularly for courses) from the 300 male officer cadets present at the academy. On the day the female officer cadets were admitted, academy director Ihor Gordiychuk said: "The task now is to incorporate a separate (female) platoon during this first year. No less than 10 and no more than 30 girls.” Educating more women to fight would have been an insurmountable task for this seasoned and valuable senior officer.