Armed conflict is not the only danger for Ukrainian women soldiers

Near the front line in Donbass, Ukraine, Anastasia, 24, is a radio operator responsible for ensuring that soldiers at the front can communicate with each other.

Stationed near the town of Mayorsk, where several soldiers have lost their lives in recent months, she enlisted six years ago against her parents’ wishes,

“I joined because I had to. If not me, who? ”She asked.

“I’m proud to serve in the military. That’s my goal. I knew my family wouldn’t like me to enlist, so I didn’t tell my mom and just went to enroll. . After that point, there was no turning back. “

Alla Akimova, 38, works in the kitchen preparing food for the soldiers and decided to enlist to help during the war and be close to her husband.

“I was at home with the children,” she explained in a military post near Zolote. “But they’re all grown up now and I want to help make a difference here. I couldn’t go to war while having young children.

According to figures released by the Defense Ministry, 23% of the Ukrainian military are women, a number that has increased 15-fold in just ten years. About half of them are soldiers while the other half work in civilian support roles.

In 2008, only 1,800 women served in the Ukrainian army, a number that rose to 23,000 in 2017, 24,487 in 2018, 27,074 in 2019 and 29,760 women in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, this rapid growth is due to the conflict with Russia, which began after Moscow annexed Crimea and supported the Donbass separatists. But while it is easier for women to pursue careers in the armed forces than before, challenges remain.

A Soviet legacy

“Traditional gender roles still exist and are difficult to change. It’s not just one thing, it’s about traditions, ”Hanna Hrytsenko is an independent researcher and part of the Invisible Battalion Project in Ukraine, which studies the role of women in the military.

“People are used to a certain life and don’t see that it has to change,” she said.

Hrytsenko said gender roles are a hangover from the Soviet era, when the state’s demographic priorities 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 front lines – but she expects it to be a challenge.

“There are things that women can’t be allowed to do so easily, like being on the front line. Not all women are allowed to go because a lot of men don’t like it,” a- she declared.

It is not always conflict that makes the frontline dangerous for women. With the Invisible Battalion Project, Hrytsenko documented cases of sexual harassment that include insults, teasing and touching – but also incidents of rape of female soldiers by their male colleagues.

The problem is likely to be much more widespread than official statistics suggest, she said, with many victims reluctant to come forward.

“Women can’t defend themselves physically at the moment or leave the military when something happens,” Hrytsenko said.

“Even though thousands of women work in the military, this conservative and patriarchal system persists. The system is often not designed to cater for women, who often have nowhere to go with their complaints. “

Iryna Suslova, leader of the women’s movement “ZA MAJBUTNE”, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, where she chairs the sub-committee on gender equality and discrimination, believes that the situation has improved over time.

“Until five years ago, women […] could not be oil tankers, snipers, participate in sabotage and reconnaissance groups, work in the infantry, ”said Suslova.

But she says tackling 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. Sadly, Ukraine is no exception. You have to set up hotlines, create trust lines, work, investigate and prosecute, which unfortunately is not currently the case, despite the fact that such cases exist. They are public, but the cases are not very well studied.

Nursing Sister Iryna Bazykina is one of the few who has come forward to the media and recounted her experience. She recently told Radio Liberty that after asking to go to the front line, 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 complaint, and when it did, it was shut down “for insufficient evidence.”

Try to change things

Victoria Arnautova, adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on gender issues, commented in March on allegations of rape in the Ukrainian military, saying the government was developing international mechanisms to tackle harassment.

“We are studying the legislation, analyzing internal documents, the best way to develop this mechanism, which would include means of lodging complaints, would protect the rights of the participants in the process.

“There is a need to launch mechanisms such as confidentiality and anonymity, the ability to review cases without publicity. This is a very stigmatized area not only for the armed forces but also for the whole of society,” said Victoria Arnautova at Radio Liberty.

In March, Lyubov Humeniuk, chief specialist in the Department of Military Education, Science, Social and Humanitarian Policy of the Ministry of Defense, said the ministry was working to make more fields accessible to 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 support positions. moral, psychological and medical, as well as individual positions in special forces. Currently, work is underway to open positions for female military personnel in these units, ”she said, according to Ukrinform.

Euronews has contacted Ukraine’s Defense Ministry for comment, but no response had been received at the time of publication.

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