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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Powerful, Tragic, Inspiring: Women and the War in Ukraine

Article by: Helen Kurvits

Photo credit: Stanislav Nepochatov (spoilt.exile)

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks, and is based on this PRIF blog piece by Hanna Manoilenko.  

The Female Face of Resistance

“Our current resistance has a particularly female face” was the way Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, acknowledged and praised the role of women on the Ukrainian side of the war that Russia has brought onto her country. According to the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks, the role of women in armed conflicts has mostly been examined from, and sometimes reduced to, two perspectives: First, women are seen as victims in need of protection. But second, they are taken as actors bringing about positive change themselves. The latter can be in the form of leading the response to humanitarian crises, serving in military formations, shaping policy-making, and more. Women in the war in Ukraine form the largest proportion of displaced people and are disproportionately experiencing combat-related sexual violence. However, they have also taken the lead by being the first responders to the humanitarian situation and occupying combat positions in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. How are these inspiring women making such impacts?

An Exponential Rise in Displacement

The war between Russia and Ukraine, starting in 2014, had already left 1.6 million displaced.  The full-scale invasion in February has further led to the displacement of over 13 million people, which amounts to almost 30% of the population. Most of those fleeing have been women together with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. However, some have started to return and the 16th of April 2022 was the first day at the Ukrainian-Polish border where more people entered Ukraine than left it.

The Reasons for Return, and the Realities

The Peace Research Institute Frankfurt names multiple factors influencing the desire to return is the changed perception of the security situation, as well as other critical reasons such as family reunification. Women with children, whose partners remained in Ukraine, often return to their families because they could not settle in a new place, find a job or affordable housing, or they need help in taking care of their children. And for the many that stayed in Ukraine, the atrocities of the war have become visible in cities that have been liberated from the Russian occupation, such as Bucha, Irpin or Izyum. Shocking cases of conflict-related sexual violence have been predominantly reported with regard to women but also towards children and men.

Taking The Lead Themselves

Women in Ukraine have become actors bringing about the change. They have been taking the lead in responding to the humanitarian crisis. Many of the first-responders were local women-led organizations and initiatives that helped by distributing medical and food supplies. Moreover, those behind the delivery of hygiene products and emergency birth control in severely affected areas, have been young women activists. Some of the initiatives include FemSolution, Bilkis, and FeministLodge, who still continue their humanitarian work.

Women in The Military

Ukrainian women as actors of change includes more than their vital lead in humanitarian action. Almost a quarter of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are women. According to military officials, women make up nearly 22% of the armed forces and this has witnessed an upward trend which began in 2014 with the war in the East of Ukraine. For comparison, the average percentage of women in NATO armed forces stood at 12% in 2020. As per November 2022, approximately 60,000 servicewomen were employed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. About 41,000 of them are combat-related roles and 18,000 in civilian positions, medical roles, and others. However, this change has been the result of a long advocacy campaign.

“Invisible Battalion” Made Women More Visible

The reason behind the high percentage of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine can be traced to a long advocacy campaign. The “Invisible Battalion” project started in 2015 by documenting the participation of Ukrainian women in the war against the Russian army in Donbas. This project included sociological research, creating a photo exhibition and filming a documentary about women’s participation in the conflict. This project made the women in the Armed Forces truly visible. The documentary was presented in more than 100 Ukrainian cities and also in 10 countries around the world. It became part of an advocacy project as a result of which the list of combat positions for women was expanded.

Later Changes in Legislation

The research conducted by the “Invisible Battalion” team revealed that  the legislation from 2015 allowed women at the front to hold administrative positions. Their roles could include being cooks, seamstresses, or signalmen. However, it almost did not allow them to take combat positions. Women who volunteered often found themselves without legal protection and did not have access to adequate social security neither could be nominated for military awards. In 2018, the Law of Ukraine “On Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men during Military Service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Other Military Formations” was passed.

What Did the Change Involve?

With this legislation, women were given the same status as men in the armed forces and were able to have equal access to positions and military ranks together with equal responsibilities in the performance of military service. While cases of sexism and gender inequality have been reported, women are broadly accepted and able to carry out the same tasks as men. For Katya, 25, it was Russia’s full-scale invasion that prompted her to join the military of Ukraine. “I am a patriot for my country so I could not sit on my hands during this war. I want to save people and fight for independence from Russia for my country, so my children will never have to live through this.”

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