Society

International Women’s Day 2022

How Ukrainian women soldiers refuse to stay invisible in the military

In 2014, they fought in Donbas. Now, they are fighting a full-fledged war with Russia. But a lot has changed for Ukraine’s women soldiers. This time they will be recognised for their role in combat

Ukrainian women have been an increasingly large presence in the military since 2014. Ukraine now boasts of more than 30,000 women soldiers ie, 15 per cent of its military personnel.

As Russian-backed forces seized part of the Donbas region and conflict ensued in 2014, thousands of women volunteered to help the Ukrainian military that was losing strength. They served as assault troops, medics, and snipers; hundreds ferried supplies to the front amid the conflict.

A week before International Women’s Day 2022, 8 March, a video of a Ukrainian woman soldier went viral. Dressed in military gear, she is heard saying with a smile on her face, “I’m still alive, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, everything will be fine. Long live Ukraine.”

The identity of the soldier and the source of the video remains unknown, but it brings attention to thousands of Ukrainian women fighting the war against Russia.

The country has focussed on recruiting women in its armed forces since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Ukraine now boasts of more than 30,000 women soldiers ie, 15 per cent of its military personnel.

Increasing military strength 

Towards the end of 2021, as Russia increased the strength of its forces along the border, Ukraine called for women, aged 18 to 60, to enlist in the army. “This is not about conscription after reaching some age, as it is for men. It is about conscription in wartime. And considering more than 122,000 Russian troops are at our borders, the decision seems logical, timely, and sensible,” Oleksandra Ustinova, a woman leader and member of Ukraine’s national parliament had said in December last year.

Women in certain professions were allowed for military conscription, a mandatory enlistment in the service. But in December 2021, Ukraine revised the law. Women librarians, journalists, musicians, veterinarians, and psychologists were required to register.

However, life in the military is not easy, more so for women, who along with the enemy from across the border have to fight another one that exists in society: discrimination. While women have been long-serving in the Ukrainian military, they won the right to officially fight in combat positions along with their male counterparts as recently as 2017. Since 2019, they are allowed admission in military academies, where they can train to become officers.

The invisible battalion

As Russian-backed forces seized part of the Donbas region and conflict ensued in 2014, thousands of women volunteered to help the Ukrainian military that was losing strength. They served as assault troops, medics, and snipers; hundreds ferried supplies to the front amid the conflict.

Andriana Susak, a junior sergeant, told The Wall Street Journal that she wore a balaclava to hide her gender in an operation in 2014 after commanders denied her permission to fight. “Our armed forces weren’t ready to defend our country, so they needed volunteers,” she said.

But the sacrifices of Susak and many like her went largely unrecognised. On paper issued by the Ukrainian military, these soldiers were listed as seamstresses, cooks, and janitors. Soviet-era rules dictated that women be forbidden from performing roles that affected their reproductive health.

The 2014 conflict ushered in a change. The “invisible battalion” as these women were called going not ready to perform their duties, make the sacrifices, and live in oblivion. Women veterans got together and lobbied for their rights, bringing about a much-needed change in the culture in the Ukrainian military.

A documentary also titled Invisible Battalion played a key role in drawing attention to the role of women in the army. It revolves around six soldiers and veterans who fought heard without any official recognition, reports Slate Magazine. It shows life in the trenches in Donbas, women preparing others for combat, and those fighting trauma after years of service.

Invisible Battalion tells the story of sniper Olena Bilozerska, who saved up for two years to buy a rifle. She gave up her previous profession as a poet and journalist to fight for her country but was never enlisted. The documentary throws light on the life of 29-year-old Andriana Susak, a combatant who served on the frontlines until she was five months pregnant only to be listed in official documents as the head of the sewing and fixing team for military equipment.

In 2015, an activist of the Invisible Battalion displayed portraits of women soldiers to the Ukrainian parliament and ministry of defence. Two years later, the documentary was released and shown to people in Ukraine and around the world. Finally, that year, the government recognised the role of women in the military and opened up 62 combat positions to them, according to the Slate Magazine report.

It was a hard-fought victory.

Battling gender stereotypes 

However, gender stereotypes continue to plague the military. Sexual harassment is prevalent but women like Kateryna Pryimak, a paramedic who has served on the frontline and co-founded a veteran movement, are not the ones to give up easily. She and her colleagues have written studies on how discrimination can be fought. Today gender advisers have been assigned by the army to serve at some 400 military bases across Ukraine, reports WSJ.

Some struggles are practical. In 2020, the soldiers demanded female underwear to replace the standard one issued for men. A pink was made available, but the women take solace in the fact that it was a step in the right direction.

That’s not all. A July 2021 video of a marching practice for a ceremony, showed the women soldiers wearing heels. It caused global outrage and Ukraine was called out for its sexism.

A lot has changed since and a lot has not. But now with war raging, Ukraine has bigger problems at its hands. The strong military force of women is fighting alongside its men. There is no stopping them. And this time when they launch that rocket launcher, they won’t be enlisted as cooks.

This post is also available in: English

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