Women in Ukraine’s Military: An Opportunity for Change

28. April 2020   ·   Hanna Hrytsenko

Since 2014, the number of women in the Ukrainian military has drastically increased. Local civil society has been promoting gender equality in Ukraine’s security sector from the bottom up. International actors should do the same: Germany needs to support the promotion of women to higher ranks as well as gender-sensitive programs for demobilization and reintegration.

While UN Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security urges countries to increase the participation of women in the military through a top-down approach, in Ukraine, this process has emerged in the reversed direction – a grassroots initiative brought legal changes. The fact that many Ukrainian women have joined the military has been influenced considerably by the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Women began to increase their voluntary participation both in official military forces and in volunteer battalions to fight against the invasion of Russian troops in 2014. In parallel, a grassroots movement of women in the military and women veterans has developed an advocacy campaign named “Invisible Battalion”. These women achieved strong, visible results, including equal rights to serve in the military service now formalized in a legal framework. Social inclusion, career opportunities, and influence in decision-making processes have been dramatically enhanced and increased for women in the military.

Removing Legal Barriers to Women’s Participation in the Military

The most fundamental achievement is the lifting of legal barriers in the military. In 2018, a law “Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities of Women and Men during Military Service in the Armed Forces” was adopted. This overturned the Soviet legislative heritage from the 1960s concerning female employment in the military, when women were only allowed to work in those jobs in the military that did not seem to affect their reproductive health – regardless of whether a particular woman wanted to have children or not. As a result, women could be legally employed in the military, but not in combat roles. Consequently, women’s real participation in the military was hidden – for instance, a rocket launcher operator was employed as an accountant and a doctor as a head of a field bath – and therefore officially invisible. In 2018, the number of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, though not necessarily on the frontline, had reached up to 55 000 according to the official statistics, which is at least three times more than it was at the beginning of the war in 2014. Since 2019, women are also allowed to study in military colleges, which implies an increase in their chances to enter military academies and reach higher ranks. As many respondents of the Invisible Batallion study stated, female service had a positive impact on gender equality in the army. They claimed that this was mainly because they were challenging the stereotype of women being weak and therefore unable to serve – and as a result, their male colleagues rethought their stereotypical attitudes.

Civilians’ solidarity and respect for women in the armed forces has been an essential part of the societal change to which the Invisible Batallion campaign has contributed. Importantly, the struggle for gender equality in military jobs also raised awareness of the fact that labor legislation hindered access for women to 450 civilian jobs. This prohibition was then lifted as well. After female equality in the military was addressed, a new, though still small initiative was started by the LGBTQ movement – a group of LGBTQ servicepersons and veterans, who advocate for their visibility and rights.

The attention to increasing the visibility of women in the military has also led to a change in media reporting in Ukraine: rather than romanticizing a lady with manicure, who answers questions about whether the husband had allowed her to work in the army, media now tend to cover the personal stories and difficulties of women in the military (for instance a personal story covering combat medic Olena Mosiychuk, who shares her experiences, including the separation from her 3-year-old son). In addition to the Invisible Battalion study, two documentaries about women in the military were produced in 2017 and allowed to reach larger audiences and increase advocacy for equality on the national level.

International Support to the Defense Sector Should Be Made Gender-Sensitive

Still, all those achievements are not sufficient and require both, further development and larger recognition. One of the most important feminist principles of combating violence is identifying the perpetrator and avoiding victim-blaming. Regarding the war in Ukraine, I therefore suggest that the international community strengthen sanctions on Russia as well as encourage both conflict sides to strongly adhere to international humanitarian law and to prosecute international crimes. Within the Ukrainian military, there is a strong potential for changes, which should be reckoned with by the international community that supports security sector reform in Ukraine. Most international programming and funding that address gender equality in Ukraine focus on the civilian parts of the security sector, while, in turn, assistance programs to the defense sector barely mention gender equality. International cooperation should focus on the intersection of these two issues. Based on the principles of UN Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace, Security”, this means including gender equality into international programming, using the Ukrainian experience as an example of other militaries, and further work in different focal areas.

Germany and international donors should focus on the following areas of international cooperation:

Share Best Practices From Bundeswehr and Federal Police Servicewomen

The promotion of women to high-ranking positions in the defense sector as a way of combating the glass-ceiling should be supported. Sharing best practices from Bundeswehr and Federal Police servicewomen and female veterans can help with women's promotion to higher ranks and problems of female integration into military infrastructure. Having more women in higher ranks would also increase the visibility of women’s participation in the military. Since the military infrastructure in Ukraine is not yet developed to support female participation, many issues remain that have not been dealt with yet – among them preventing and combating harassment and sexual violence at the military workplace, facilitating the effective combination of military service and motherhood, and introducing gender advisers into military bodies. A regular gender audit in the defense sector is also recommendable.

Use Grassroots Initiatives in the Security Sector

The German government should keep in touch with Ukrainian civil society and enhance international networking. Exchange programs and networking meetings can be useful tools for this cooperation. The potential of Ukrainian non-governmental organizations, informal initiatives, and expertise should be recognized, as recent years have demonstrated their influence. Both the Ukrainian government and its international partners should welcome this bottom-up approach as much as possible. Not only would it empower the participants of the female grassroots initiatives, but it would also ensure that women’s diverse needs are identified correctly and then addressed. This approach can also be used to improve the policy on veterans as well as to prevent and combat sexual violence in the military. Ukrainian civil society has already contributed immensely to a better integration of women into the military and has demonstrated its strong motivation for seeking these changes. The potential stemming from these efforts should be taken seriously.

Support a Gender-Sensitive Addressing of the Consequences of the Conflict

Stable peacebuilding requires preventing the habituation to violence among servicepersons and veterans. Though gender stereotypes about violent masculinity are challenged, violence is still prevalent even in peace time, including in the far-right political spectrum. It is extremely important, both in the defense sector and among veterans, to address post-conflict aggression, which can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the result of a shift in personal values, when violence becomes an acceptable method of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, state programs for ex-combatants are still insufficient and address mostly their somatic health and employment prospects, while PTSD issues are underrecognized and underaddressed. These programs are also gender-insensitive. Increasing international support to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts can decrease the negative consequences of the conflict, particularly for women.

Making reforms in the security sector more gender-sensitive can contribute to the general level of societal gender equality. Framing international programming in a gender-sensitive way should therefore be a priority for Germany’s support to Ukraine and its military.

Security Sector Reform Frauen Ukraine

Hanna Hrytsenko

Hanna Hrytsenko is co-author of the study ‘Invisible Battalion’: Women's Participation in Military Operations in the ATO, which was followed by a major advocacy campaign to increase the visibility of women in the military, and co-author of the sequel study ‘Invisible Battalion 2.0’ on the reintegration of veteran women.