Near the front line in Donbas, Ukraine, Anastasia, 24, is a radio station operator tasked with making sure soldiers at the front can communicate with each other.
Stationed near the city of Mayorsk, where several soldiers have lost their lives in recent months, he joined six years ago against his parents’ wishes.
“I joined because I had to. If not me, who? “, I ask.
“I’m proud to serve in the military. It’s my purpose. I knew my family wouldn’t like me to join, so I didn’t tell my mom and just went to sign up. After that moment, there was no turning back.” .
Alla Akimova, 38, works in the kitchen preparing food for the soldiers and decided to join together to help in the war and be close to her husband.
“I used to be at home with the children,” he explained at a military post near Zolote. “But now everyone has grown up and I want to help make a difference here. I couldn’t go to war with young children. “
A total of 23 percent of the 250,000 troops in Ukraine’s army are women, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry, a number that has multiplied by 15 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 military, a number that increased to 23,000 in 2017, 24,487 in 2018, 27,074 in 2019, and 29,760 women in 2020.
Unsurprisingly, the rapid growth is due to the conflict with Russia, which began after Moscow annexed Crimea and supported the separatists in Donbas. But while it is easier for women to pursue careers in the military than it used to be, challenges remain.
A Soviet legacy
“Traditional gender roles still exist and are difficult to change. It’s not just one thing, because it’s about traditions. ”Hanna Hrytsenko is an independent researcher and part of the Invisible Battalion project in Ukraine, which investigates the role of women in the military.
“People are used to a certain life and don’t see that it needs to change,” he 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 parenting. As a result, women tend to be pushed into medical or office work, Hrytsenko said.
“But things are slowly changing.”
Anastasia wants to be on the front line, but she hopes it will be a challenge.
“There are things that women cannot be allowed to do so easily, like being on the front line. Not all women can go there because a lot of men don’t like it,” she said.
It is not always conflict that makes the front line dangerous for women. With the Invisible Battalion project, Hrytsenko has documented cases of sexual harassment including name calling, taunting and touching, but also incidents of rape of female soldiers by her male colleagues.
The problem is likely much more widespread than official statistics suggest, he said, with many victims reluctant to come forward.
“Women can only defend themselves physically right now or leave the army when something happens,” Hrytsenko said.
“Despite thousands of women working in the military, this conservative and patriarchal system persists. The system is often not designed to serve women, who often have nowhere to turn with their complaints. “
Iryna Suslova, leader of the women’s movement “ZA MAJBUTNE”, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, where she chairs the subcommittee on gender equality and discrimination, believes that the situation has improved over time.
“Until five years ago, women […] They could not be oilmen, snipers, participate in sabotage and reconnaissance groups, work in the infantry, ”Suslova said.
But she says that combating sexual violence remains the biggest challenge, and not just in Ukraine.
“This problem is very common throughout the world and in countries where there are military conflicts. Unfortunately, Ukraine is no exception. It is necessary to establish telephone lines, build trust lines, work, investigate and prosecute, which sadly is not the case now, even though such cases exist. They are public, but the cases are not very well investigated ”.
The military doctor Iryna Bazykina is one of the few who has appeared in the media and has shared her experience. He recently told Radio Freedom that after he requested to go to the front, a commander asked him to come to his home to discuss his future.
There, she claimed, he attacked her. Bazykina said the military tried to prevent her from filing a case, and when she did, it was closed “for lack of evidence.”
Trying to change things
Victoria Arnautova, advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on gender issues, commented in March on allegations of rape in the Ukrainian army and said the government is developing international mechanisms to combat harassment.
“We are studying the legislation, analyzing internal documents, what is the best way to develop this mechanism, which would include ways to present complaints, protect the rights of the participants in the process.
“It is necessary to put in place mechanisms such as confidentiality and anonymity, the ability to consider cases without publicity. This is a highly stigmatized area not only for the armed forces but also for the whole of society,” Victoria Arnautova told Radio Freedom.
In March, Lyubov Humeniuk, chief specialist in the Department of Military Education, Science, Social Policy and Humanitarian at the Defense Ministry, said the ministry is working to make more areas 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 charges related to the use of explosives, poisonous substances, diving work, fire fighting, as well as submarines and surface ships, with the exception of charges of moral, psychological and medical support, as well as individual charges in Forces Specials. Currently, work is underway to open positions for military women in these units, ”he said, according to Ukrinform.
Euronews contacted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for comment, but no response had been received at the time of publication.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism