From the very beginning of the Russian invasion, scenes of Ukrainian resistance have preoccupied the attention of the international public. Photographs and videos of civilians digging trenches, stitching uniforms, and taking up arms defined the conflict and showed the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people. From professional soldiers to volunteers, men and women, Ukrainians are strongly opposed to aggression and reject the role of collateral victims in the East-West conflict. That is why this year, 2022, on International Women’s Day, we pay special tribute to women in Ukraine, who have shown strength, determination, and will in the fight for freedom.
Although women can leave Ukraine, many have chosen to stay and fight. Without fear, for days they stay strong on the lines of defence. Traditional gender norms from the former Soviet nation have been shaken thanks to women who are still fighting, often as volunteers, against Russia.
Most women did not hesitate – they embraced the rifle regardless of age and occupation. They serve on the battlefield together with men, on equal terms. But the fight for equality in the security services was neither easy nor simple. Women in uniforms and those without it have been central forces in their efforts to counter Russian aggression since 2014 when Moscow decided to annex Crimea and support separatists in the Donbas region.
“When Russia declared war on us, Ukraine, then I decided to arm myself… And for the last five days I have been trying to learn how to use it,” said Kira Rudyk, a politician and member of the Ukrainian parliament.
The changes introduced in 2016 allowed women to hold positions not only as whistleblowers, accountants, or cooks as previously assumed by the procedure but as snipers, soldiers, members of special forces, and commanders.
A group of sociological activists called the Invisible Battalion in 2017, made a documentary of the same name showing six female soldiers and veterans who serve in the Ukrainian army, whose achievements have not been recognized until then. Many of them share a special friendship with the men they have fought with, seek access to military careers and benefits, and advocate for their rightful place in history. They show different faces of courage. In addition to professional soldiers and snipers, there are those who may be physically weaker but have shown different strengths and power – one that is accompanied by a sense of loss.
The change in policy came about thanks to the lobbying efforts of veterans such as Olena Bilozerska , a sniper who fought as a volunteer on many battlefields in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2016. She also participated in the filming of the Invisible Battalion.
“Why am I fighting? Because this is my country that I have to defend to the very end if necessary. I will not hide and I will not run away. I will stay here and fight, ” Olena Bilozerska, who is currently a sniper on the battlefield in Kyiv, told RTL.hr.
After the release of the film, there was a big turnaround – since 2018, legislative changes have enabled the admission of women to the contract service and the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, registering them as service soldiers and giving them adequate protection and benefits for their work. This completely equalizes the rights of women and men in the army. According to a survey conducted by Y.Y. Bobrov and Y.O. Bobrov (2021) in 2020, almost one-fifth (23%) of the army were women.
The struggle for equality that accompanies this documentary marked victory. But that victory was accompanied by deep sadness. The recognition they received refers to the horrors they have experienced so far in the war that is not behind them but lasts and there is no end in sight.
“I know a girl who dragged the wounded from the battlefield under fire in Ilovajska when most of the men were hiding in the basement. If a woman, mother, sister or daughter wants to protect our values and our territory, then no one can forbid her to do so “, states the group Invisible Battalion.
Brave Ukrainian women are taking action in various ways and hope that, like them, the rest of the world will react to the war that has been imposed on them. Women who were teachers until a week ago are now helping to make Molotov cocktails, until yesterday politicians are learning to shoot today, and bloggers are shooting videos to teach disabling armoured tanks. From cooking and preparing bread for soldiers and volunteers to handling weapons – women across Ukraine have rejected the traditional divisions of men’s and women’s jobs and shown strength in resistance, which until recently was associated only with men.
“When you’re a woman, you can’t be weak. There is a stereotype that if a man gives up, he gives up because it’s really hard, and it’s really hard for him. If a woman gives up, it’s because she’s a woman, ” Daria, a soldier stationed in northern Ukraine, explains in the film the Invisible Battalion.
And the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, the wife of President and Supreme Military Commander Volodymyr Zelensky, showed the world female strength and leadership. Despite death threats against her family, she remained in her country and is a great support to the entire Ukrainian people, and in recent posts on Instagram, she has paid special tribute to Ukrainian women. She publishes photos and information on social networks every day, in order to appeal to the public and the media about the current situation in Ukraine.
“Before the war, I once wrote that there are two million more women than men in Ukraine. Just statistics. But now it takes on a whole new meaning. Because that means that our current opposition also has a special feminine face “, pointed out the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska.
Pictures of older women handling firearms are being shared on social media – they have founded the “Babushka Battalion” and refuse to remain observers. Former Miss Grand Ukraine 2015 Anastasia Lenna, whose photos in uniform have traveled the world, also became the face of the struggle and movement. In his last post, he conveyed a significant message:
“I am not a soldier, but only a woman, only a human. I am not doing any propaganda, I am just showing that our Ukrainian women are strong, self-confident, and powerful.”.
It is important to mention all those invisible heroines, women who are invisible in the media, and who lost everything in a few days and were forced to flee. The strength of resistance and will that Ukrainian women have been showing for years, and especially in recent weeks, runs counter to Putin’s narrative that this is a struggle between professional soldiers. Security and freedom are defended not only by soldiers but also by teachers, politicians, grandmothers, models, students, housewives, and all those whose every day is uncertain, just like the outcome of the war that befell them..
“Now we will have a generation of children who know what war is, who will know how to go to the shelter… after the siren alarm. That is what makes me very angry and that is what empowers me”, Kira Rudyk said on Twitter.
Bobrova, YY, Bobrov, YO (2021) Respect for gender equality as a component of civilian democratic control over the military organization of the state , Journal of the National Academy of Legal Sciences of Ukraine, 28 (1), p. 52-60