by Guntaj Mirzayev.
Seven years into the war in Donbass, Ukraine is undergoing reforms in its security and defense sectors, also for what concerns women’s participation in the military. Reforms for boosting defense capability are being conducted to make the Ukrainian army compatible with NATO standards. This is done with two main goals. Firstly, Ukraine aspires to join NATO and in order to get membership, candidate countries should attain NATO standards for ensuring interoperability with other member countries of the organization. Secondly, as Ukraine’s ex-defense minister Andriy Zahorodniuk said, “Armies that switched to NATO standards fight better.”
Together with robust reforms, an interesting trend is being observed in the Ukrainian army: it has a record high number of women among its ranks. Today almost 30,000 women serve under contract in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, soaring from 1,800 in 2008. The overall share of women, including those serving in uniform and also civilian personnel, stands at 23% out of the more than 250,000 strong Ukrainian army. Excluding civilian personnel, the proportion of women in the Ukrainian military is almost the same as NATO's with a little less than 11%.
Why such an increase?
From the dissolution of Soviet Union until the eruption of hostilities in 2014, Ukraine underwent a drastic reduction of its manpower and weapons. In 1991, upon regaining independence, Ukraine inherited an 800,000 strong army and a sizable nuclear arsenal. In 2014, when the war broke out, Ukraine was non-nuclear and most of its armed forces had ben cut, reaching around 150,000 – with only six thousand truly combat-ready. Thus, the War in Donbass forced Ukraine to ramp up its military capability to be able to resist the expansion of the separatists heavily backed by Russia.
Moreover, conscription was abolished in 2013 and recruitment was based only on voluntary service. After the war began, conscription was reinstated and remains mandatory for men only. Women are eligible to serve voluntarily and enjoy increasingly more rights and equality within the armed forces. Now women make up approximately 10% of the total military personnel involved in the Joint Forces Operation – Ukraine’s official designation for the ongoing military operation in Donbass (previously called “Anti-Terrorist Operation” or ATO). Over 9,000 women are recognized as participants of combat activities for their service in “ATO” zone. As the bloody conflict drags on, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were killed in action; among them 13 women.
More rights – more equality
The sharp rise in the number of women involved in military service led the leadership of Ukraine to re-examine the existing legislative framework that constrained the rights of women officers and soldiers. Reforms aimed at gender equality of servicemen and servicewomen have also been encouraged by NATO, as a part of broader security and defense sector reforms.
Although since the conflict broke out Ukrainian women played a very important role as volunteers including in combat positions – practically acting beyond what was legally permitted to them – their rights were very limited in comparison to men. For example, officially women could fulfill administrative tasks, work as medical personnel or cooks within army formations but they were barred from combat positions. Since 2016, this is not the case anymore, as the list of military professions available for women is much broader than before, including commander, gunner, driver of infantry fighting vehicle, sniper, scout, machine gunner and so on. Only a few positions remain unavailable for women officers – those related to explosive objects, diving operations, firefighting, submarines and ships, as well as individual positions in special forces units. The rationale behind these remaining restrictions seems to be based on additional risks for women’s health.
A major breakthrough was achieved in 2018 with the enactment of several amendments to existing laws that significantly advanced rights and opportunities of women in the Ukrainian army and other armed formations. Amendments opened up new opportunities for women including the right to be appointed for a day duty (previously prohibited for women), elimination of lower retirement age for women and so on. However, the biggest novelty was the inclusion of the provision stating that women and men perform military duty on an equal footing. This concerns voluntary recruitment (under contract), mobilization, service in reserve etc. Only legislation on maternal and child health can introduce certain restrictions to the rights enjoyed by women in military service. For example, pregnant servicewomen are not deployed in “ATO” zone.
The amendment of discriminatory laws effectively made women in security and defense sector also eligible for higher ranks. In late 2018, Liudmyla Shugaley of Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was assigned the rank of Major General, thus becoming the first woman in Ukraine’s history to reach the rank of general in a military service.1 Very recently, another servicewoman also attained the rank of Major General – Yulia Laputina – who participated in numerous special operations conducted by SBU, including an airport landing in Eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk during the initial phase of “ATO” when it was under Russia-backed separatists’ control.
Wide-ranging reforms also cleared legal obstacles for women’s military education. Starting from March 2019, restrictions on admission to military lyceums for female applicants were lifted. In September 2019, the first 20 girls were admitted to Ivan Bohun Military High School in Kyiv.
All of these positive developments however do not necessarily account for the full achievement of gender equality in the Ukrainian army. In fact, some servicewomen reported cases of sexual harassment they faced in the armed forces.
Motivations and Realities
Women join the Ukrainian army for different reasons. “There are some [women] that look for the extreme and join army. Another category are feminists, women aspiring to get more and change something. Then, there are women sitting at home alone without a decent job, roughly speaking without a family or a relationship. There are also women whose lives did not go well, they have kids and they don’t have enough money to raise them. There are a lot of girls from the countryside who cannot find jobs there and join army to somehow provide for kids,” a former medic in the Ukrainian Armed Forces told me. She and her husband served together in “ATO” zone since the early stages of the conflict until recently leaving military service for civilian life.2
Her husband explained that some women do not understand the tough conditions under which they will live if they are trained and assigned for a combat position: “I remember a story my friend told me; a tank commander, a girl, came and said that she needs a separate room. My friend scolded her that if you are a tank commander you have to stay with your crew, and I cannot build a separate hut for you.” She added that such cases are majority, “Because now most are there to earn money. Those that served in the beginning [of the war] did not care if they lived with men or not.” “Volunteer girls stayed in the same barracks with boys and never had any problems,” her husband also pointed out.
“If you say that women are allowed to serve in combat positions, ok,” he clarified, “But you have to define everything clearly. Today, a servicewoman turns into a problem, because you should take her at least once a week to the city to get necessary hygiene stuff. There are girls who understand that they are in the frontline to serve and fight, but there also some that do not get it and ask commander’s permission to have manicure in the city center because her nail is broken.”
Ukraine’s long road of military reforms has been partially effective, but its growing women participation is a big success – in percentages it is ahead of some NATO countries like Belgium, Italy and Poland among others. With more women among its ranks and more rights granted for them, Ukraine still needs to tackle practical issues for servicewomen.
About the author
Guntaj Mirzayev is a Master's student in International Security Studies, School of Advanced Studies Sant’Anna and University of Trento, currently doing an internship in Razumkov Centre, Kyiv, Ukraine.
2 Their names and service details are not disclosed following their own request.
Cover photo by Natasha Ischenko, Independence Day Parade, 24 August 2018.