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Publikujemy tłumaczenie tekstu Krystyny Garbicz z grudnia 2022 r. "Ukraińskie żołnierki: żegnaj Barbie, nadchodzą wojowniczki. Czy zmienią losy wojny w Ukrainie?".

On the photograph: Yulia Mykytenko, one of the heroines of the text. Photo: Anastasia Olijnyk

The development of technology has meant that waging war in the 21st century has changed a great deal. There are frequently no direct clashes on the battlefield between the parties to the conflict. Physical strength is no longer important. Reasoning, cunning and the ability to make decisions rationally and quickly are gaining importance. These qualities have no gender, but the new combat strategy decidedly opens up the field for equality between men and women in the army.

Krystyna Garbicz writes about the feminist revolution on the battlefield.

‘SUNDAY WILL SURPRISE YOU’ is OKO.press’s series on the calmest day of the week. We want to offer our readers ‘food for thought’ – analyses, interviews, reports and multimedia that show well-known topics from a different angle, throw our thinking off the beaten path, and just surprise us.

The war took away our most precious thing – our beloved

Why does a woman go to war? They each have different reasons. Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Blyshchyk grabbed a gun three months after her fiancé, a well-known war correspondent Oleksandr Makhov, was killed on 4 May in the village of Dovhenke near Izium in the Kharkiv Oblast. He was defending his homeland in the 95th Separate Airmobile Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We covered Makhov’s story in OKO.press in May 2022.

Anastasia decided to continue her beloved’s cause and fulfil his dream: to fly the yellow and blue flag over a free Luhansk, where he came from. She is fighting near Slobozhanske in the Kharkiv region. This is no coincidence. She wants to be where her fiancé fought and died.

She has learned to shoot and mastered the basics of battlefield medicine to save her brothers and sisters on the battle front. She is an ambassador for the Women’s Veterans Movement. She keeps in touch with other women who lost their husbands in the war.

She is unable to live in civilian life. The army is the only place where life is easier for her.

Anastasia’s social media is a list of memories of her beloved.

On 4 October, she writes:

‘I was in Dovhenke, near Izium, today. The village is completely destroyed. In the photograph, I’m looking at the cursed place where the heart of the greatest love of my life stopped beating.


Anastasia believes Oleksandr has become her angel and is protecting her.

I love you, my paratrooper, after all, you can hear me! You are with me, I know!

kobieta w mundurze stoi na drodze

[Anastasia Blyshchyk in the combat zone. Photo Anastasia Blyshchyk’s Archive/Facebook]

Warrior instead of a Barbie

The number of women in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) increased after the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014. 16,500 of them served in the Ukrainian army in 2013, but by 2021, there were more than 32,500, almost twice as many. 7,000 more women joined the army’s ranks after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

There are now more than 50,000 women in the UAF (including civilian employees). Around 38,000 serve in the rear, while 5,000 are fighting on the front. Before 24 February, women accounted for 15%–25% of the Ukrainian army. This figure is much higher than in other countries. Today, the percentage is lower, but only because a large number of men have been mobilized.

In 2013, more than 1,600 women were officers, whereas, by 2020, this figure had risen to 4,800. According to the Ukrainian office of the BBC, more than 8,000 women now serve as officers. 1,632 women received state decorations between 2014 and 2020.

The image of the female warrior is increasingly displacing that of the woman-Berehynia (Slavic goddess, protector of the family) or the woman-Barbie. The Ukrainian philosopher Tamara Zlobina calls this process of social change ‘gender decay’. New roles for women, being more independent and autonomous, are taking shape in the minds of Ukrainians.

The growing importance of female soldiers in the UAF has contributed to this change in thinking. However, the position of women in the Ukrainian army was different up to a few years ago.

The legacy of the USSR: ‘Women should bear children and sit at home’.

According to historians, around 800,000 women fought for the Soviets during the Second World War. They were not only nurses, but also snipers and pilots.

After the War, in order to restore an appropriate birth rate, the Soviet authorities treated women as a resource for reproduction.

‘The trend of defending motherhood started in the 1960s. The authorities prevented women of childbearing age from working in heavy occupations that could in some way affect their reproductive health,’ says Hanna Hrytsenko, a Ukrainian sociologist and researcher at the Institute for Gender Programmes.

‘In the army, women were only allowed to serve in positions considered safe. No account was taken of whether a woman wanted to have children or not. As a result, women could not serve in combat positions. Nor could they count on promotion. A woman could be a part of a tank crew, but could not become its commander. The list of positions was limited. This also applied to civilian positions.

Women could be telephone operators, typists, cooks or doctors at most.

This logic was adopted by the independent Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR. Women could not make a career in the post-Soviet Ukrainian army until 2014. Wives, daughters or acquaintances of soldiers in leadership positions primarily served in the UAF. They held positions which, for men, were not prestigious and were low-paid.

The lists of possible military specializations for women were limited. As time passed, the prohibitions looked increasingly absurd. Hanna Hrytsenko explains:

‘A woman could not be a war photographer because, in Soviet times, this was a person who carried a heavy camera on a tripod. There haven’t been any such cameras for a long time, but the prohibition still applied for a long time.’

War, a stimulus for emancipation?

Until 2014, the Ukrainian army was a conservative structure with a patriarchal order.

In the early years of the Russian-Ukrainian war, many women were looking for a way of getting to the front. They were accepted into service in the army as seamstresses or cooks, although, in reality, they served as snipers or held other combat positions.

Commanders could not accept a woman into service as an intelligence officer because there were no appropriate regulations.

On the other hand, the stereotype that a woman should look after the home was still deeply rooted in society. Even so, women were joining the ranks of the UAF. However, their semi-legal status meant that, when a female soldier was wounded or left the service, she was not entitled to any privileges or compensation. Not to mention appropriate pay during service.

‘If a woman is officially employed as the head of field baths, how can it be explained that she took part in combat operations where she was wounded? She deserves privileges, just like other veterans,’ explains Hanna.

The Invisible Battalion

According to the sociologist, there are two variants of the attitude towards women in the military. In the friendly variant,

commanders ‘protect’ women from what they could encounter in war, which is why they do not allow them to do many things. In the other, less friendly variant, women are humiliated, insulted, namely classic sexism is applied to them.

Hrytsenko, together with other Ukrainian sociologists, activists, female veterans and cultural activists, decided to change the Soviet attitudes to women in the military. The ‘Invisible Battalion’ social project was initiated in 2015 to support and defend the rights of Ukrainian women in war. Its creator is Maria Berlinska – a Ukrainian soldier who served in airborne intelligence, a veteran, volunteer and defender of women’s rights.

The project started with a sociological study of women’s involvement in war. Female soldiers themselves, who were facing sexism and discrimination in the army, reported the need for such research. The research was conducted by Hanna Hrytsenko, Anna Kvit and Tamara Martsenyuk. They had three stages: ‘Invisible Battalion 1.0: Women’s Participation in military actions during the anti-terrorist operation’, ‘Invisible Battalion 2.0: Women veterans returning to peaceful life’ and ‘Invisible Battalion 3.0: Sexual harassment in the military sphere in Ukraine’.

The participants of the project conducted an extensive campaign to publicize the findings. A calendar with photographs of Ukrainian women who fought on the frontline, among other things, was published, while a film with the same title had its première in 2017. ‘Invisible Battalion’ presents six stories of women who took part in combat operations in eastern Ukraine. The heroines included the well-known paramedic Yuliia ‘Taira’ Paievska, who has been on the front as a volunteer since 2014.

A lift to a career

‘Our approach differed by the fact that we wanted to not only publish articles, but, based on our research, to influence policy and legal changes. We spoke to the media about the visibility of women in the army, and invited presentations by UAF staff. One colonel came, who did not immediately understand what this was about. He asked: “If there is a woman who deserves to be promoted, tell us.” We explained that this was not the point,’ says Hrytsenko. ‘It cannot be that the colonel, who is in charge of human resources, selectively gives someone a lift in his career at his own discretion.

This lift should go up automatically, based on qualifications, not gender.

The extensive publicity of the ‘Invisible Battalion’ meant that the Ministry of Defence increased the list of combat positions that women can hold in the Ukrainian Armed Forces by 63 positions in June 2016 under pressure from the public.

The Act on amendments to certain Acts regarding the assurance of equal rights and opportunities for women and men during military service in the Armed Forces and other military formations took effect in 2018. It officially guaranteed equality between men and women in the army. Women have been able to serve in various types of military service and in all combat specializations since February 2022. They can perform the same tasks and have the same rank in the army as men.

Ukraine has three female generals. Liudmyla Shuhaley became the first Ukrainian woman to receive the rank of major general in the medical service in 2018. Yulia Laputina, an employee of the Security Service of Ukraine, was promoted to the rank of major general in 2020. Tetiana Ostashchenko was made the first brigadier general in the Ukrainian Armed Forces a year later. Over a thousand women are serving as senior officers, more than 800 are troop commanders.

Women have been able to study at military universities since 2019, increasing their opportunities to pursue a career in the army.

On the front line without a manicure

Hrytsenko emphasizes that the ‘Invisible Battalion’s’ fight for gender equality in the army has also drawn attention to the lack of equality in civilian professions. The civil labour code prohibited women from working in 450 professions. The Ministry of Health of Ukraine revoked its order no. 256, which contained a list of professions that were prohibited for women, on 21 December 2017.

The attitude of the public to women joining the army has changed significantly over the past eight years. Sociologist Tamara Martsenyuk compares two public opinion polls on this: the first was conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2018, the second by the InfoSapiens research agency after the Russian invasion in April 2022.

If the idea of equal rights and opportunities for men and women in the Armed Forces was supported by around 53% of Ukrainians in 2018, this percentage increased to 80% in 2022.

The Ukrainian public has become accustomed to female soldiers over the years of war and positively assesses the image of women in the army.

The media also help. Female soldiers have been the protagonists of materials more frequently since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Even the most popular fashion magazines, such as ELLE Ukraine, publish entire series of stories about women at war.

‘Female soldiers had previously appeared rarely in the media and, if they did, they were presented as ladies with manicures and make-up. Emphasis was placed on their beauty and that, even in field conditions, they could take care of their appearance. They were asked what their husbands thought of them fighting on the front, how they came to let them go there. Now, the media reports have changed. There is no discriminatory material,’ says Hrytsenko.

Girls cutting their locks

In 2018, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance published a book by correspondent Yevheniya Podobna, ‘Divchata zrizajut` kosy’ (‘Girls cutting their locks’). The author collected the stories of 25 women who took part in combat operations in 2014–2018. One of the protagonists is Yana Chervona ‘Witch’, a machine gunner, who was killed in 2019.

The public rhetoric changed; there have been changes at statutory level. Since 2021, the Day of the Defenders of Ukraine has been the Day of the Male and Female Defenders of Ukraine. ‘Not every man is a defender of Ukraine, not every defender is a man!’ – wrote activists in the social media.

In their speeches, politicians mention ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ fighting on the frontline.

‘Of course, there are commanders, especially from the generation of soldiers starting their careers in the Soviet Union, who are not used to having a woman performing combat tasks. They are now learning to accept this. The army is a cross-section of society, if there is sexism in society, it is there too,’ says Hanna Hrytsenko.

The Women’s Veterans Movement was founded in 2019, which is an initiative of women who have returned to civilian life, but want to ensure that female veterans receive support and are able to interact with each other in their community.

According to Hrytsenko, the ‘Invisible Battalion’ is an example of a bottom-up initiative that makes it possible to cooperate with the authorities and achieve an important political result in a relatively short time. And above all, it breaks down the stereotypes about women.

Woman, don’t disturb

Marusya Zveroboy (her real name is Olena Sambyl) is a volunteer, an instructor at a paratrooper training centre, a social activist. She graduated with a degree in journalism. Before the Maidan Uprising, she was a private entrepreneur, taught design and worked in advertising.

She started to help the army from the beginning of the war. In the summer of 2014, she organized a basic military training ground where volunteer instructors with a military background trained soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and volunteer battalions before going to the front. The centre provided basic infantry training, as well as advanced medical, engineer, etc. courses. Marusya was the commander of the ‘Right Sector’ volunteer battalion called ‘Marusina bears’ from the autumn of 2014. The unit became one of the best in Ukraine.

‘The specificity of my work was to create platoons that served and performed tasks together. The experience I gained enables me to form combat families, where brotherhood is the basis of the squad and its religion,’ says Marusya in one of her interviews.

The girl has been involved in the selection, protection, coordination and training of such groups throughout the war, namely for the last eight years. She first worked as a volunteer, but it was only in 2016 that she signed a contract with the paratroop forces, where she officially trains platoons of contract service soldiers.

Marusia 02

[Marusya Zveroboy, photo Marusya Zveroboy’s Archive / Facebook]

Marusia fiercely critcizes the Zelenskyy government.

‘2019, before the elections. We’re in shit around Mariupol. But now the shit is much greater. And Mariupol has been swept away, together with its inhabitants. After all, I said it would be worse, there would be nothing to laugh about! No, go away, woman, don’t interrupt the search for peace,’ she writes on her social media.

Don’t sit, don’t wait – fight

Marusya was discharged from the army in 2019 because of the state of her health. When the full-scale war began, she took her family to a safe place, while she, herself, joined the territorial defence ranks and began recruiting a unit.

They trained under fire in the Podil district of Kyiv in cooperation with the local police and the Security Service of Ukraine. They mined the approaches to the capital and gained combat experience in Irpin, clearing the city of Russians.

Marusya says the pace of the war is accelerating and the training schedule for new soldiers is crazy.

‘I would be ashamed to face my children if I were to run away out of fear. I don’t understand how men can do that.

Our victory will come quicker if everyone takes part in the defence.’

‘Every citizen should ask themselves every day: what am I personally doing at this moment for Ukraine to win the war? How can I help when my compatriots are fighting for the future of my children, dying in bloody battles? Am I helping them? If not, who am I to my country? And do I have a moral right to peace? If you are not being bombed and are just sitting and waiting for them to win without you, you’re trash, you’re not a citizen,’ believes Marusya.

Fighting for respect

Yulia Mykytenko did not plan to become a soldier. She graduated in philology in 2016 from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. After Euromaidan, she took part in the activities of the ‘Vidsich’ сivic movement. She was involved in open-source intelligence: searching for information on Russian troops in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

Yulia met Ilia Serbin in March 2015. They got married after three months. The couple decided to do contract service together in the 25th Separate Motorized Infantry Battalion ‘Kyivan Rus’, which was fighting in Svitlodarsk at the time.

Ilia was appointed a scout. Yulia became a clerk at the headquarters and then worked as an accountant. In the spring of 2017, as she had a degree, she was sent on a three-month officer’s course at the Hetman Petro Sahaidachnyi National Ground Forces Academy. When she returned, she was appointed commander of a motorized infantry platoon and then commander of a reconnaissance platoon.

‘When I worked in the staff headquarters, this was normally accepted, after all I am a woman. But when I returned to the same battalion, the same people, but in the rank of an officer, I started to be rejected as a commander. It was difficult to gain authority and respect,’ says Yulia.

‘When a woman comes to the unit, she immediately has to show that she has a specific role in the team and will not allow herself to be treated more leniently.

If they offer to carry her rifle because she’s a woman and she agrees, she loses her authority.

With time, men understand that a woman can be part of the unit and even perform some tasks better. A woman has to work ten times more than a man to earn respect,’ says Yulia.

Many soldiers left Yulia’s reconnaissance platoon; they did not want to be ‘under a woman’s command’. They returned later when they heard that it was good to work with Yulia.

Yulia talks about her combat experience in the video:

Ready to die

Yulia’s husband supported her in her new role. He was killed in February 2018 during shelling in the Bakhmuk region.

After his death, Yulia moved to the Ivan Bohun Military High School in Kyiv in June 2018. The job was a lifesaver for her. She left six months before the full-scale invasion.

She did not completely ignore the subject of the military in civilian life. She worked as a project manager for the ‘Invisible Battalion’ and on some projects regarding the social reintegration of war veterans, such as the ‘Veteranius’ initiative.

She reported to the conscription board on 24 February. She was the only woman here.

‘I promised myself when I left the army that, if a full-scale war were to break out, I would return to military service. I knew I was mentally and occupationally prepared, that I would certainly be needed,’ says Yulia.

Julia’s unit has many people with whom she served before. However, now, nobody shows her any contempt. ‘Now, in contrast with the battles of 2017, my chances of dying are much higher, just as everyone else’s. I am placing my life in the hands of fate and I am ready for death,’ admits Yulia.

The war has also taken Yulia’s father away. Mykola Mykytenko, an ATO veteran (this is the zone of Russian-Ukrainian confrontation in the Donbass), a soldier of the Serhiy Kulchytsky Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine, set himself on fire in Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] in Kyiv on the night of 11 October 2020. This is how he protested against President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s policies, which he considered capitulatory. He died of burns three days later, on 14 October.

‘I don’t have the moral right to surrender. I cannot betray the memory of my father and husband,’ says Mykytenko. She is also fighting, while thinking of her mother and brother, who are waiting for her.

Yulia Mykytenko is currently a first lieutenant in the position of platoon commander. She is fighting in the Donetsk region. She was awarded the third grade ‘Order For Courage’ on Ukraine Defenders Day, on 14 October 2022, by decree of the President of Ukraine. She is 27 years old.

Sexual harassment behind a veil of silence

In 2018, Lieutenant Valeriya Sikul revealed that she had been sexually harassed by the commander of the A-1358 military unit, Viktor Ivanov. This was the first public allegation of molestation in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, no criminal case based on Valeriya’s allegation ended up in court and Ivanov was not dismissed. The case was written up by the human rights centre, ZMINA.

Up to 2021, cases of harassment of women in military units that were revealed did not end with the perpetrators being held accountable.

‘A woman could complain to her commanding officer, but if it was the commanding officer who had been violent with respect to her, there was nowhere that she could file a complaint. Hotlines were also not the answer. They did not accept complaints anonymously, so the commander knew who had filed the complaint and that person could have had problems. No one complained because it was pointless,’ explains Hanna.

There were no mechanisms for taking action, institutions or people specially authorized to receive such complaints and conduct internal investigations.

Women who were sexually harassed kept quiet about the wrongdoings for years.

Sexual harassment trauma like battlefield trauma

Head of the NGO Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association ‘JurFem’, Chrystyna Kit, says sexual harassment most frequently takes place not where active military operations are taking place, because ‘men aren’t thinking about that’, but in military units in the central or western part of Ukraine, which are furthest from the front line.

Research fellow Marta Havryshko points out:

‘Sexual violence in military structures is a widespread phenomenon for a variety of reasons: the cult of hegemonic masculinity, the absence of women among the authorities and the position of the commanders hiding and covering up crimes. An important role in keeping the violence quiet is played by the victims themselves, who are ashamed, afraid of being stigmatized and persecuted, and of being accused of slander.

According to Havryshko, a particular trap in the research of sexual violence in everyday military life is the heroic discourse.

While glorifying its defenders, the public avoid or marginalize topics related to crimes within the army itself.

Last year, the Invisible Battalion team developed a mechanism of countering sexual harassment in the Ukrainian army – wherever it took place. The General Staff of Ukraine gave its approval to the organization to introduce a procedure to be followed in such situations. Currently, work on this solution has now come to a standstill because of the escalation of the war.

[President Volodymyr Zelenskyy congratulates Yulia Mykytenko on her award. Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine]

Course on equality for the army

One of the methods of combating sexual harassment and sexism in the army is to educate male and female soldiers. Sociologists Martsenyuk, Hrytsenko and Kvit developed a course named ‘Gender equality and combating sexual harassment in the military‘, which is freely available. It has also been posted on the Ukrainian army’s internal platforms.

‘Not everyone who serves in the army is familiar with the basic terminology. In the course, we explain why this is so important. Ukraine has a list of international obligations on gender equality which we have to fulfil satisfy,’ says Hanna Hrytsenko. ‘It happens that someone thinks he was joking, whereas he has offended someone. The commanders force him to apologize, but the offender does not, in fact, understand what is wrong. The course explains these phenomena: where equality is, where the stereotypes appear, that no means no and other basic things.

Ukraine has recognized UN Security Council Resolution 1325 ‘Women, Peace and Security’, which was adopted in 2000. The resolution focuses on two issues: women’s military service and gender-based sexual violence during armed conflicts.

Hrytsenko explains that it is important who handles the victim’s complaint, who conducts the investigation and what the consequences will be for the perpetrator. Sometimes, the perpetrator or the victim need to be relocated to another unit for the woman not to feel stressed. The perpetrator’s presence could adversely affect how people perform their duties.

‘We try to constructively explain problems to the commanders. We give recommendations, we propose solutions. This process is obviously moving more slowly than we would like. However, we realize the army is a huge structure and a difficult system. Back in 2014, our soldiers were still fighting in training shoes. We have made progress,’ sums up the sociologist.

They have won the right to fight, but not to wear a uniform

Despite significant progress in women’s rights in the Ukrainian army, social problems still exist. There are no separate field uniforms for women (they are only for ceremonies). Men’s uniforms are unsuitable for women: the smaller ones fit the waist but are tight in the hips, the larger ones fit the legs but do not fit the stomach line. Inappropriate uniforms interfere with the fulfilment of combat duties.

Women cope with this problem with the help of seamstresses.

The Ukrainian army does not provide personal hygiene products or women’s underwear to women. There is a shortage of smaller size shoes or gloves, while volunteers provide sanitary towels and tampons to women.

It was reported in July that a standard military uniform would be created for women. Two volunteer initiatives are working on this. The first is First Lady Olena Zelenskaya’s ‘No Barriers’ organization, while the second group – Arm Women Now – is headed by Kyiv City Council member Iryna Nikorak. It is not known when the female soldiers will receive their finished uniforms.

Women at war are also being looked after by the charity organization ‘Zemliachky. Ukrainian Front.’ Volunteers sewed the first uniform for a pregnant female soldier – the well-known Ukrainian sniper Yevheniia Emerald, nicknamed ‘Joan of Arc’. Emerald is a second lieutenant, a sniper of the Special Forces Regiment ‘Safari’. She is still serving, but not on the front line. She will be able to go on maternity leave when she is seven months pregnant.

An important question for the future is the standardization of the appearance of women in the army. A female soldier currently decides for herself whether for example, to have long, red fingernails. Standardization will help avoid disputes with commanding officers. However, there are more pressing questions during war.

Women want to fight

The situation of women in the Ukrainian army has improved in comparison with 2014. Positive changes have been made on a social and legal level. Despite the problems, Ukrainian women are proving that they deserve a dignified place in the army.

In her research, Tamara Martsenyuk states that, according to a nationwide, nationally representative survey conducted by InfoSapiens for the British research agency ORB on 3–4 March 2022, 59% of women are ready to personally take part in military resistance to end the Russian occupation of Ukraine.

But there is more to work on.

Post scriptum

While I was working on the article, information appeared that Adriana Susak, co-founder of the Women’s Veterans Movement foundation, was wounded near Kherson. Adriana was struck by a mine in a civilian car. She suffered fractures to her arm, shoulder, jaw and ribs and has lung damage, as well as stomach and back wounds. She was hooked up to a ventilator in hospital. Adriana was a member of the ‘Ajdar’ Battalion’s assault group in 2014, officially holding the position of a seamstress. She took part in the battles for the Lugansk airport and the battles for Shchastia. She is one of those who decided to change the situation of women in the army. Adriana’s condition is serious.



Krystyna Garbicz

Jest dziennikarką, reporterką, „ambasadorką” Ukrainy w Polsce. Ukończyła studia dziennikarskie na Uniwersytecie Jagiellońskim. Pisała na portalu dla Ukraińców w Krakowie — UAinKraków.pl oraz do charkowskiego Gwara Media.