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  • Writer's pictureBryan Ramos Alcántara, Makenna Petersen, Pauline Zaragoza

Ukraine: The Dichotomy of Women in War Times

“Women’s war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”(Alexievich, 1985)

The role of women in war has been the subject of timeless debates from both the academic and non-academic worlds, especially when it comes to their place in the military. Beyond those discussions, one fact cannot be questioned: they have always been impacted in one way or another in armed conflicts: as fighters, humanitarians, mothers, daughters, laborers, community leaders, or survivors (Haleh, 2003; ICRC, 2018). In this context, they embody dual perceptions: either as a target or as a weapon. On contrary to the assumption that women are peaceful beings, it has to be noted that women fighters are as old as the concept of war itself (Haleh, 2003). For instance, in the Yemen conflict, women took up arms to fight despite family pressures (Christiansen, 2018). In Colombia, women composed 30 to 40% of the FARC forces (Boutron, 2016). Moreover, surprisingly, the Soviet Union army by 1941 was composed of 1 million women (Le Prince, 2022).

The reason why women tend to be pictured as victims rather than fighters is rooted in their erasure as combatants in history books (Boutron, 2016). Indeed, this dynamic of male fighters versus female victims has dominated our way of thinking war. Even today, the diversity and complexity of women’s war experiences are often silenced to conform to the frames imposed by international organizations, such as UN Women, which are the principal founders of peace-building projects (Ibid). Nonetheless, the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, which disclosed the participation of female US soldiers in torturing Iraqi prisoners, showed that women are not inherently more peaceful than men (Palmieri and Hermann, 2011; Muvumba Sellström, 2021)

This dual perception of women in war can be found in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. The conflict dates back to 2014 when the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk held “democratic referendums” to become independent People's Republics (Padinger, 2022). This last step unleashed an armed conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the central power in Kyiv which has left more than 14,000 dead and has not stopped in more than 8 years despite the Minsk Peace agreement in 2015 (Trevelyan, 2022). In this context, Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine took place. With the excuse that genocide was committed against Donetsk and Luhansk populations, the Russian government decided to intervene in Ukraine in February 2022 (International Crisis Group, 2022). However, this “special military operation” was not limited to these two regions, but attacked the whole of Ukraine and triggered the current humanitarian crisis in the country that is now affecting millions of people (Kirby and Guyer, 2022).

In this conflict, though some gender stereotypes persist (e.g. only women and children can leave the country while men have to stay to fight), some changing gender roles on the battlefield and in the news coverage can be glimpsed (Mutsvairo and Orgeret, 2022). Many social media posts including the ones of the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, highlight the active role of women soldiers and volunteers, and by doing so support new war narratives regarding the participation of women (Ibid).

In a war context, women are used to be represented as victims. However, their role as participants starts to be acknowledged. This dichotomy is present in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. However, what it’s the complex field reality beyond those representations, and does these dual positions challenge or fuel the existing gender narratives?


The occurrence of sexual violence: women’s bodies on the battlefield

It is no secret, that the ongoing Ukrainian conflict has witnessed sexual violence acts, mainly committed by Russian soldiers and targeting Ukrainian women (Ricci, 2022). If there are not yet official figures, there is an accumulation of testimonies and painful stories reported via traditional media, social media, or humanitarian organizations. Already, the documentation of those war crimes has begun with the work of several organizations such as the collective “Feminist Workshop” and which try to gather testimonies in Ukraine and at the Polish border (Ibid).

A woman told Human Rights Watch that a Russian soldier had repeatedly raped her in a school in the Kharkiv region where she and her family had been sheltering on March 13. She said that he beat her and cut her face, neck, and hair with a knife.” (Human Rights Watch, 2022)

Sexual violence constitutes a recurrent phenomenon of violence since the inception of warfare. In the academic literature, this practice is referred to as “conflict-related sexual violence” (CRSV) which translates as the occurrence of “sexual violence by armed organizations during armed conflict” through the practice of “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” (Koos, 2017). The use of sexual violence, mainly against women, underlines the extent to which their bodies represent a battlefield concern.

In wartime, rape is often used as a strategic weapon to reach military aims like demoralizing the enemy or terrorizing and controlling the civilian population (Koos, 2017). Such practice marked some conflicts by its widespread use such as seen in Bosnia-Hergozovina (1990) and Rwanda (1993), and today in Ukraine (Eriksson et al., 2018). Russian soldiers have also been accused of practicing sexual torture during the Chechen conflicts (Ricci, 2022). What sets apart “wartime rape” from “peacetime rape” is its additional aim to pursue military and political goals such as humiliation of communities, the creation of terror, and the spread of disease (Eriksson et al., 2018; Koos, 2017). Moreover, wartime rape is enhanced by “ethnic, religious, or ideological cleavages that increase the level of hatred and brutality” (Koos, 2017). For instance, the practice of gang rape is much higher in times of war (more than 70%) as witnessed in Ukraine where widespread gangrapes have been reported by the UN (Koos, 2017; UN Security Council, 2022)

What is leading to such behavior? Researchers on this subject have tried to identify the different motives leading to CRSV. Four potential causes have been identified (Koos, 2017):

  1. Purpose and strategic motives: CRSV is a ‘weapon of war’ and is used strategically to terrorize, control, displace, and eliminate the civilian population by targeting female members. However, this cause is hard to prove considering that often no clear evidence regarding its strategic and targeted use

  2. Contextual conditions and opportunity structures: the absence of the rule of law, impunity, weakened state institutions, and above all gender inequalities make sexual violence in the context of ethnic, religious, and ideological conflicts more likely

  3. Individual motives: Psychological studies by Elbert and colleagues lend preliminary evidence to the ‘appetitive aggression’ thesis which suggests perpetrating extreme violence might be experienced as a rewarding, fascinating, and an addictive personal experience for combatants.

  4. Intragroup norms and dynamics: Collective rape increases cohesion between members of armed groups as well as the absence of penalties and norms prohibiting CRSV on the part of the group and its leadership makes opportunistic (not strategic or tactical) sexual violence more likely

Overall, CRSV carries heavy societal consequences such as the stigmatization and rejection of victims (Ibid). Moreover, wartime rape leads to severe psychological costs (e.g. PTSD and anxiety crisis) but also physical ones (e.g. protracted pains or abortion) (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). Already in the first weeks of April, 400 cases of CRSV have been reported to Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova (New York Times, 2022). Nonetheless, the Office for the UN High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) has alerted that the lack of physical security, absence of available services for victims, an atmosphere of impunity, fear of retaliation and stigma, and trauma all contribute to under-reporting by victims of sexual violence (OHCHR, 2022) The occurrence of those CRSV in Ukraine also raises the question of justice regarding those war crimes.

Former cases such as in Rwanda and Yugoslavia have shown a lack of judgments containing rape convictions and a high number of acquittals for rape (Nowrojee, 2005). As a matter of fact, in Rwanda, there was the double number of acquittals for rape than there were rape convictions (Nowrojee, 2005:1). In the case of Ukraine, the constitution of an Ad hoc court is not even conceivable as neither Ukraine nor Russia is part of the Rome Statute, therefore justice will rely on the shoulders of national courts. Thus it might represent an opportunity to bring a change by finally making International Law efficient knowing that the absence of penalties, rule of law, and impunity regarding CRSV is a cause leading to such behavior.

In Ukraine, women are not only the main target of CRSV but are also experiencing gendered evacuation procedures that exposed them to a high risk of human trafficking. Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, more than 13 million people have left Ukraine for neighboring countries to flee the war (UNHCR, 2022). Most of those fleeing the war are women, children, and elderly people who were forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries, while men aged 18-60 are forced by the Ukrainian government to remain on the ground to perform defensive tasks in the face of Russian aggression (Ibid).

Vulnerability and motherhood: the persistence of sex bias procedure in civilian evacuations

The tradition of evacuating women and children first dates back to the 1800s. On February 26, 1852, the English ship H.M.S. Birkenhead was wrecked off the coast of South Africa when it struck rocks. With only two lifeboats for just over 600 passengers, the ship's captain, Alexander Seton, gave the order that only the women and children were to leave. Since then, the phrase 'Women and children first' became an unstated rule that was made even more famous by the sinking of the 'Titanic' in 1912 (McFadden, 2022).

In war context, this sex bias civilian evacuation procedure is often reproduced as witnessed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina where this leitmotiv of “women and children first” was implemented (Carpenter, 2003). This sex-selective behavior stems from gender beliefs enhancing the concept of women as vulnerable (Ibid). Paradoxically, even though the international norms are stating a “gendered equal” plan of action in wartime, the UNHCR’s rules of evacuation are in practice not followed. On the ground, institutional actors are witnesses of a regulative effect as ideas about gender influence the behavior and policies of institutions (Carpenter, 2003: 669).

In the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the evacuation of civilians is following exactly this rule, but there are other considerations to the evacuation of predominantly women and children in this context. Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe (World Population Review, 2022). Even before the recent escalation, conflict was raging in eastern Ukraine since 2014, and women and girls were severely impacted (UN Women, 2022a). More than 1.5 million people – two-thirds women and children – were internally displaced and suffering from impeded access to health care, housing, and employment before the February 2022 invasion (Ibid). The current military offensive is only going to exacerbate this situation (Ibid).

As for men, they don't really have much of a choice. Men aged 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country, with some exemptions. This includes cases in which they are exempt from military service, have a disability, are a single parents, or when raising three or more children under the age of 18, or are the legal guardian of another person (Moaveni & Nagarajan, 2022). The declaration of martial law in Ukraine gives the government power to enact this ban. As Ukraine’s border guard service explains, the ban on adult men leaving is aimed at guaranteeing “Ukraine’s defense and the organization of timely mobilization” (Pilipey, 2022). However, despite universal forced conscription, many men do not wish to fight. In this regard, social pressure also plays a fundamental role in pressuring many men to decide to stay and fight despite having never had military training or willingness to fight. Men trying to leave the country have been shamed by crowds for not wanting to stay (The Daily, 2022).

Moreover, trans women who are identified as men in their paperwork have also been stopped at the border and prevented from leaving. Many of them are trying to escape the fear that the war will have a detrimental effect on their rights in the event that Russia’s transphobic regime takes over (Tondo, 2022). Since 2017, trans people in Ukraine have been legally recognized, but they must undergo extensive psychiatric observation and a lengthy bureaucratic process before their gender can be reflected in official documents (Knight, 2017). Caught in this complex process, thousands of Ukrainian trans people had no personal identity documents or certificates when the war broke out (Tondo, 2022).

This almost mandatory gendered evacuation for those wishing to escape from war zones has generated a large wave of women and children who are being exposed to a network of traffickers strongly present in the area.

Women exploitation and victimhood: the expansion of human trafficking

The trafficking of Ukrainian victims is already a well-established, illegal industry with criminal networks operating between Ukraine and countries in Europe and Central Asia (UNODC, 2022). Trafficking rings are notoriously active in Ukraine and neighboring countries during peacetime and now the fog of war is the perfect cover to further exploit the range of this illegal business (Wong, 2022). The UNODC 2022 Global Database shows that Ukrainian victims were identified as trafficked to 29 countries (UNODC, 2022). Over half were identified in the Russian Federation and a quarter in Poland (Ibid).

In the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian war, according to the UN Refugee Agency around ninety percent of the people who decided to leave the country to find refuge are women and children (UNHCR, 2022). Displaced and disoriented, often with no idea where to go next, refugees are forced to put their trust in strangers. They don’t know where they are, who is helping them or what their next steps are. They have no money and, in most cases, they don’t speak the language. Furthermore, because women with little children and without men are seen as more vulnerable, they are more likely to be preyed upon by traffickers in those war contexts of chaos and desperation (UNODC, 2022). this crisis increases vulnerabilities as well as opportunities to exploit people in need of protection, especially internally displaced people and refugees (Ibid).

Global data on detected cases of human trafficking since 2006, continue to show that women are the main target of traffickers and are primarily subjected to abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labor (UNODC, 2020). And as for the 2022 refugee crisis stemming from the Russian invasion, numerous cases of human traffickers were reported in arrival points of refugees (UNODC, 2022). The usual modus operandi is to detect victims at border points where, due to the chaos and poor organization, many women trust people who lure them with promises of free transport, accommodation, employment, or other forms of assistance (Adler, 2022). Once the refugees accept "free transportation" to other places just for them, they then force them to hand over money to pay for the trip that they don't have, forcing them into debt and leaving them at the mercy of smuggling networks (UN Women, 2022a).

However, organized crime (including sex and organ trafficking and frequently, slave labor) is not the only menace. Refugees are exploited by individuals too. People in Poland, Germany, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe have opened up their homes to refugees, most with the best of intentions. But sadly, not all. With Ukraine's reputation for having some of the most attractive women in all of Europe and being a country with a large sex tourism network, in some places there have been reports of sexual services requested in lieu of money for rent (Hughes and Denisova, 2002).


Fearless soldiers: women in wartime Ukraine

Women have long held a strong value in Ukrainian culture and have continued to step up for their country year after year. They are no strangers to military service and undertaking combat, even though most western media coverage of the conflict reinforced binary conceptions of men and women’s role and responsibilities” in wartime (Ellner, 2022). In fact, “Ukrainian female soldiers have actively participated in armed combat for nearly a century, including serving as officers in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I and the Red Army in World War II,” (Yuko, 2022). In one year, the number of women present in the Ukrainian forces was 15,6% and by march 2021 was reaching 22,5% (Ellner, 2022).

This growing participation of women opens the door to the progression of gender equality and Feminism in Ukraine (O’Sullivan, 2019). Indeed, their involvement in the military challenged the standards of gender division as it emphasized their role as “protectors” rather than “protected” and their ability to take leadership positions within volunteer groups (Jarymowycz, 2020). This progression started during the Donbas conflict where women made up almost a quarter of the forces and permitted the introduction of the 2018 law on the equal rights of men and women in the armed forces (Ibid).

As previously addressed, many female soldiers are raised to the status of battlefield icons in media or social media in the current conflict. For instance, this has been the case of a female Ukrainian sniper known as 'Charcoal' who became the symbol of Ukrainian bravery and resistance as she imposed herself as a natural leader on the frontline. Even though her identity is still unknown, she joined the Ukrainian marines in 2017 and has fought pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, in the east of the country (Matthews, 2022). The snipers’ skill prompted comparison with a former legendary Ukrainian sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, known as Lady Death after she killed 309 Nazis in WWII (Ibid). Pavlichenko is credited as being the most successful female sniper ever (Ibid). Moreover, this engagement on the battlefield is ageless as demonstrated by another inspiring woman, Sergeant Inna Derusova, a 52-year-old senior combat medic, who was making her way back from vacation when Russian forces launched airstrikes in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 (Yuko, 2022). She spent the next two days tending to those wounded in the attacks on the city of Okhtyrka, located about 350 miles from Kyiv (Ibid). Derusova worked until February 26, when she was killed during a Russian shelling attack. On March 12, she became the first woman to be awarded the title of “Hero of Ukraine” posthumously (Ibid). Those examples are used as symbols of resistance from Ukrainian women from both the media and the government and help to shape other war narratives where women warriors are not invisible anymore. However, those “women as fighters” emerging stories fuel another stereotype: the vengeful mother of the family and nation (Ellner, 2022).

The reality remains also that Ukrainian women are likely to occupy lower ranks, perform more office-based auxiliary roles or be excluded from certain duties within the military structure still dominated by men (Beck et al. 2003;Jarymowycz, 2020). Nonetheless, over years, the role of women within the Ukrainian military evolved. Back in 2003, a research article demonstrated that female officers in Ukraine are “more dissatisfied with their role, have a poorer relationship with their line managers and perceive that they receive a more authoritarian and directive style of management than their male counterparts” (Beck et al. 2003). A shift started after 2014 with the occurrence of the Crimean war. For instance, in 2018, they became able to serve in most combat roles and gained legal quality among men and women(Ibid). Before 2019, women present in the combat roles were not recognized under the status of combatant which was depriving them of many opportunities such as prospects of career evolution or studies (Ibid). They were seen as the “invisible battalion” within the Ukrainian forces.

Nonetheless, they still face “same problems as women in other armed forces, such as sexism, bullying, sexual harassment or assault” (Ibid). Nonetheless, certain gender barriers remain. Indeed, some male officers experience struggle to consider women’s presence in the military force as permanent as they consider it a wartime exceptional measure (Ibid).

Fighters in the front line but also beyond: women as war volunteers

However, in Ukraine, women did not only mobilize as soldiers. They also play a vital role when it comes to logistics and non-combat support (Keyssar, 2022). With their own limited means, they volunteer either by storing medical supplies, cooking food or running a hotline for wanted people (Ibid). With their work, they constitute the shadow frontline beyond the battlefield. For instance, a collective called Datallion composed of 120 women has been created to record and report war crimes with their smartphones (Ibid). Already, more than 1200 videos have already been verified by the collective (Ibid). This content represents precious data for media and official institutions for the documentation of the conflict and, more importantly, war crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers.

Moreover, women play a central humanitarian role in their local communities, in schools as volunteer workers and in hospitals by bringing supplies (UN Women, 2022c; Bloom and Moskalenko, 2022). Even grandmothers are volunteering and making a difference in wartime Ukraine by using their sewing machines to make flak jackets and military uniforms (Bloom and Moskalenko, 2022). This engagement highlights the determination beyond gender and age to participate in this national war effort against Russia.

Similarly to women soldiers, women volunteers also experienced recognition and visibility from both the media and government discourses. However, despite the critical participation of women in supporting roles, they are also on the front line and, as a result, are often the first victims to economic pressures, the increase in poverty and the difficult access to healthcare following the start of the conflict (UN Women, 2022c).

Women’s Rights, Roles, and Revelations in Ukraine and Society

A key in understanding the participation of women in the Ukrainian conflict can be found in the analysis of their role in Ukrainian society as well as the strong feminist culture grounded in the country as shown by the importance of the Ukrainian FEMEN movement (Bloom and Moskalenko, 2022). Along with much of Europe, Ukraine has made leaps and bounds within the feminist movement since the mid-nineteenth century. These movements specifically advocated for women’s right to gain an education and the liberty to exercise their talents. These were desired in the form of paid activity, participation in public affairs, and certain forms of combat (Ibid).

Nonetheless, while there are significant improvements concerning women’s rights in Ukraine, such as legislation upholding women’s rights and opportunities for women to participate in political life, the country is far from achieving gender equality, both in daily life and in the political arena. The Wilson Center highlights a traditional view of Ukrainian society where, “83 percent of respondents thought that a woman’s most important task was to take care of her home and family, whereas 75 percent considered that a man’s most important mission was to earn money (Odarchenko, 2021). Further, “78 percent thought that women were more likely than men to be guided by emotions in making decisions” (Ibid). Those surveys underline the retention of strong patriarchal structures and norms alongside longstanding feminist tradition.

Like in many nations, employment and economic activity among working-aged women in Ukraine is significantly lower than for men. Although the female population in Ukraine was reported at 53.67 % in 2020, they constitute 72.2% of social assistance recipients, makeup 92.2% of single parents, and with a 22% gender pay gap (UN Woman, 2022a). Therefore, women are more vulnerable to humanitarian crises (Ibid). Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic had already exacerbated women’s vulnerability to income loss and domestic violence and increasingly exposed them to additional unpaid work and high psychological pressure (Ibid). Ukraine still has also a category of “non-female professions” where women are forbidden, including work underground, in mines, and in certain “limited access” positions within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, although women are allowed in combat positions as stated and presented earlier (Odarchenko, 2021). In addition, Women’s participation in the national decision-making process remains low with only 12% of women composing the parliament seats and 11% of Cabinet Ministers (UN WOMEN, 2022b).

However, Ukraine has successfully closed the gender gap by 72 percent in the past three years, placing it among the top third of countries in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report based on a comparison of women and men in such categories as economic participation and opportunities educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment (World Economic Forum, 2020).


Ukraine highlights the dichotomy of women's positions in a war context. In this instance, they remain the principal targets of conflict-related sexual violence, sex bias evacuation procedures, and human trafficking. However, they are also assets to achieve victory in this conflict as fighters on the battlefield and engaged volunteers at the back. At the same time, this war challenges but mostly fuels the current gender narratives in war times as the dozens of Ukrainian women enlisting to fight and the narrative images of these armed blonde soldiers that are making the rounds on social media make it difficult to talk about gender and this war in a traditional way (Moaveni & Nagarajan, 2022).

This case brings a unique insight that confirms that women remain the principal victims of war, however, it shows also their active participation giving them some recognition and visibility they have historically been lacking. Both passive and active subjects, Ukrainian women carry many battles: at home, in the back, on the battlefield, and to change current gender narratives and structures. All those battles promise to be long.


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