Espreso. Global

Ukraine’s female warriors: fighting Russia, discrimination, and ill-fitting uniforms

Kate Kikot
14 February, 2024 Wednesday

Women in the army are no longer a novelty, as more than 62,000 women serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine in combat and non-combat roles. Espreso has analyzed what positions they hold, how they feel, and what problems face

On February 1, for the first time, women serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine received sets of summer field uniforms, which are made to fit women's body shape.

50,000 sets of such military suits have already been delivered to the troops, according to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. The new uniforms include structural elements that allow women soldiers to feel comfortable while performing tasks in the field and at permanent locations.

The models were developed by the relevant unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine together with NGOs and Ukrainian manufacturers. The uniforms were tested in one of the military units.

Moreover, in autumn last year, the Ministry of Defense also started supplying the Armed Forces with women's underwear. The servicewomen tested the kits in two stages during 2023, checking them for functionality, reliability, quality, and comfort. The female soldiers who took part in the tests positively evaluated the quality materials and comfortable cut of the underwear that does not restrict movements and is suitable for use even in full gear.

Why uniform matters

Until then, the issue of appropriate clothing and underwear for female soldiers was quite pressing. In fact, they simply did not exist, and women were given men's uniforms, which caused a whole range of inconveniences. 

A jacket that was too big gathered in folds under the body armor and chafed, thermal underwear that was too large did not fit the body and did not warm it, and the low waist of the pants constantly exposed the lower back. And these are not all the disadvantages of wearing men's uniforms for women.

Volunteers partially solved the problem by gathering donations, designing, tailoring and delivering clothes. The Arm Women Now social initiative is one of them. The NGO has made several thousand uniforms to fit servicewomen, giving them to Ukrainian defenders for free.

"Our priority is to give uniforms to women who are on the front lines. Not only uniforms, but also underwear. Because even as of today, women in the army are unfortunately still given men's underpants. It is difficult for women to find proper pants and bras as the underwear for combat missions, which is used by the military, is different from that worn by civilians", the project's founder and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Iryna Nykorak, said.

"It seems to me that if a woman has taken up arms and is defending her country, then she should at least have a comfortable uniform," she added in an interview with Radio Liberty.

Lesia Hanzha, a servicewoman who worked as an editor before the full-scale war, agrees. In an interview for Ukrainian Pravda, she told that a comfortable uniform is not about beauty, but about combat capability.

"I used to have men's pants, but women's and men's body shapes are different. Such pants may fit well on the buttocks, but they don't fit well on the hips, because women's hips are usually fuller than men's. A soldier whose pants fall off or whose boots chafe is already half a soldier," says Lesia Hanzha.

First body armor for female soldiers

The same goes for body armor. Women serving in the Ukrainian military generally relied on bulletproof vests designed for men, bought their own gear or found supplies via non-profits.

Finally, at the end of December, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine certified the first women's bulletproof vest developed domestically by the Ukrainian Armor company. 

It has an outwardly curved armor plate, narrowed shoulders and a wider bottom. It does not differ from the previously approved all-military body armor and weighs 10.5 kilograms.

But the ill-fitting uniforms and protective gear is not the only problem Ukrainian women soldiers face. They still have to fight for their place in the Ukrainian army.

No longer exotic, but still not a common thing

According to the Military Media Center, in 2014, the total number of women in the Armed Forces was 49,926, of whom 16,557 were servicewomen. 

And as of October 2023, the number of women in the Armed Forces increased to 62,062, of whom 43,479 were servicewomen.

Moreover, following Russia’s full-scale invasion, the number of women serving in the Ukrainian military increased by about 40%.

Today, Ukraine has a powerful rate of women in the Armed Forces, even among NATO member states.

The number of servicewomen in the armies of NATO member countries ranges from 0.3% to 20%. For example:

  • in the United States there are 17% of the servicewomen,

  • in the UK - 11%,

  • in Poland - 7%,

  • in Denmark - 8%,

  • in Estonia - 10%, etc.

  • There are 7% of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

According to Deputy Defense Minister Natalia Kalmykova, Ukraine has the largest number of women on the battlefield in recent world history. 

"They prove themselves not only as good military financiers or doctors, but also as brave servicewomen who faithfully defend their homeland," emphasized Kalmykova.

Hanna Hrytsenko of the civil rights project Invisible Battalion, which campaigns for gender equality in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told DW that women have been serving on the front line since 2014. 

"Most positions relating to combat operations were closed off to women. Women would still carry out the relevant duties, but with no form of registration. Or they were officially registered in positions such as cook or seamstress," explained Hrytsenko. If they were wounded, it was hard to explain what they did in battle. Public outcry eventually resulted in an adjustment in the law, and in 2018, women were officially allowed to participate in combat missions.

As of today, the Ukrainian army has lifted any restrictions on the appointment and service of women in all positions (including combat) in all groups of military specialties.

Initially restricted to traditional female roles, such as nurses and rear radio operators, the Ukrainian government introduced rules that allowed women to drive trucks in combat zones, to serve in the infantry as drone operators, machine gunners, or snipers, to become tank commanders, and serve in Ukraine’s special forces. 

Discrimination is still a problem

Lesia Hanzha joined the Ukrainian army right at the start of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and was assigned to the infantry, serving in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions.

"Unfortunately, the company commander was categorically against women," said Hanzha, adding that she had wanted to join air reconnaissance in a different brigade of the army.

"I joined the army to defend Ukraine, to go into combat," she stressed. She told DW that she was frequently offered missions in the hinterland before being accepted into the air reconnaissance unit of a brigade in the Donetsk region.

Lesia is currently serving in the 518th Battalion, and her military specialty is now an FPV drone operator. She said the attitude toward women in the army is still not the same as toward men.

“Women's desire to serve is often regarded as a whim," she said, adding that sexism in war is often disguised as care. But explaining to everyone that you are not a child to be cared for quickly gets annoying.

"I decided that it was too much trouble to protest against sexism every time. I sometimes make comments. I have my own combat tasks. After all, I joined the army not to fight sexism, but to fight Russia. So sexism will have to wait a bit," the soldier explains her position.

Paramedic and the co-founder of Veteranka NGO, Kateryna Pryimak, says sexism in the army is visible already at the recruitment stage. 

"The majority of women do say that men are given preference in the recruitment process, and when it comes to training for women, sometimes commanders simply send them somewhere else," explains the head of the movement.

But even when a woman already has combat training, it is not a guarantee that she will be appointed to a relevant position. According to Kateryna Pryimak's experience, women without medical education are often sent home from the recruitment center. In general, women are more frequently offered ‘paper job’ positions.

If a woman is a mother, and she serves in the army, she is pressured by society and sometimes by her comrades-in-arms. They say, why did she go there, and if something happens to her, what will it be with the child? 

Women who become pregnant in the army can be treated even worse, because if a woman goes on maternity leave, she is given years of service. Conventionally, she can give birth to three children and at the same time get 9 years of service while on maternity leave. This injustice is outraging men.

Does Ukraine need women in the army?

Under Ukrainian law, no woman could be conscripted against her will. Female warriors join the armed forces voluntarily. 

But recruiting women into the army is a matter of mobilization resources, because not all men are warriors, and not all women are homemakers. In addition, there are particular combat roles which some believe are better performed by women.

"I came to my commander and I asked him, 'what can I do the best?' He said: 'You will be a sniper,'" recalls in an interview with BBC Yevhenia Emerald. Before the full-scale war the woman ran a jewelry business and joined the military in 2022.

"If a man hesitates whether to make a shot or not, a woman will never," she said, recollecting her first missions. "For 30 seconds I was shaking and I couldn't stop it. That realization that now you'll do something that will be a point of no return."

"But we didn't come to them with a war. They came to us."

Despite more than 60,000 women serving in Ukraine's armed forces, of which 5,000 are directly on the frontline, Ukraine still has a way to go to learn how to engage women using their strong features rather than pointing out their weaknesses.

"When I had just joined the special forces, one of the fighters came to me and said: 'Girl, what are you doing here? Go and cook borshch [Ukrainian traditional soup - ed.]," Yevhenia told BBC. 

The servicewomen are convinced that while fighting a brutal Russian invasion, Ukraine has no right to neglect such a powerful human resource. After all, Russia doesn’t care who to kill — men, women, or even children. And if a woman can be effective in defending her country, why not let her do it?

Ukraine’s war experience shows that apart from sniper work, women are very capable of mastering engineering – mining and demining, communications, medicine and aerial reconnaissance. 

Ukrainian servicewoman Oksana Bilozerska underscores one more important skill — to motivate men. Recalling the military's morning training and jogging, Bilozerska tells how it became a matter of honor for everyone to outrun her. 

“A fighter may not be young, he may be overweight or have untreated injuries. But it's a matter of honor for him to overtake me. Literally for everyone. As a result, the entire battalion - or rather, the part of it who had difficulties or were lazy - started running much faster. Thus, one woman, who runs slowly to the best of her ability, raises the level of physical fitness of the entire battalion,” she said.

Bilozerska is sure the mere presence of a woman turns even indecisive men into Rambo. This is how male psychology works. No best commander can motivate soldiers like an ordinary woman. And if the woman is also small and thin, she is a jackpot.

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