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Ukraine’s military policy puts women in headlines, but not front lines

New research explores the hurdles for Ukrainian servicewomen, as well as for other women who wish to participate in the war effort

- December 21, 2022

The reporting on the war in Ukraine might suggest that women are a major force on the front lines. Headlines declare that “Ukrainian women stand strong against Russian invaders” and “On the front lines, women are often the first responders.”

But these headlines don’t tell the full story of women’s struggle to participate in the war effort. The Ukraine war echoes a global pattern where national militaries accept women in larger numbers than in the past — yet relegate women to roles that distance them from front-line combat.

Ukraine has mobilized women since 2014

Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region began to clash with Ukrainian forces in 2014. At the time, of the 14,000 women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 1,582 served as officers. Today, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with about 900 serving as officers. These figures are difficult to verify, however.

While the number of women in the military has increased, their mobilization has been haphazard. This reflects a general bias within militaries against women’s participation in warfighting. Military policymakers need women for a variety of functions, including their ability to serve as symbols of the homeland and to replace men when the pool of male recruits is low. However, military leaders often see women who join national militaries as a threat to unit cohesion, and a distraction on the battlefield.

In Ukraine, the government and pro-Russian rebel groups alike recruited women initially as a tactic to shame men into serving, as I detail in my book, “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars.” The military leadership saw women as substitutes for absent men, rather than valued contributors in their own right.

The Ukrainian government nevertheless undertook a women-specific mobilization drive. In February 2015, the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced that it would mobilize women between the ages of 20 and 50 who had voluntarily registered for the draft. The goal was for these women to serve in medical positions and communications and logistics roles.

At the time, positions in the Ukrainian Armed Forces were highly gendered. As experts noted, “a woman cannot be employed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a marksman or a drone operator, but she can be a cook or bathhouse employee.” Even as the government sought to increase the number of women serving, it restricted women to women-specific roles. Women might be on the front lines, but their titles were more likely to be “rear office manager” than “sniper.”

Has Ukraine’s military policy shortchanged women?

In new research, I look at how Ukrainian military policy decisions have affected the nature of women’s involvement in the war. The story is an all too common one: While gender equality is enshrined in Ukrainian law, the government’s military policy does not reflect a commitment to the equal treatment of male and female citizens.

It took almost four years and thousands of women serving in Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donbas for the Ukrainian military to move female personnel into permanent roles, open all combat roles to both sexes and acknowledge women’s combat veteran status. Even now, the Ukrainian military cannot secure the basic equipment and supplies that women need to effectively serve because its supply chains are designed to outfit men’s bodies.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky decreed martial law after Russian troops invaded in February. That has reduced women’s ability to serve in the armed forces on an equal basis with men. By restricting men’s freedom of movement, martial law in Ukraine positioned women as responsible for the burden of care for children and elderly people, especially those seeking safety abroad.

But my research suggests that specific policies have the potential to make a difference. Before the Russian invasion, in October 2021, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense ordered women between the ages of 18 and 60 years old employed in a range of professions — from engineers to slaughterhouse workers — to register with their local conscription office. The policy did not require women to participate in combat, nor institute universal conscription of women. However, this marked a step forward by acknowledging the vital skills that women contribute to contemporary warfighting.

This policy caused widespread confusion and panic over potential legal penalties for failure to register. It has yet to be implemented, and it would subject registered women to the same restrictions on freedom of movement that men face now. In September, Ukraine’s defense minister shifted the policy’s effective date to Oct. 1, 2023, buying the thousands of women who would be subject to the order another year of freedom.

Will women see a more equal future?

In the case of military mobilization, women’s lesser position in society has given women greater freedom of movement and protection from front-line military duties. On the other hand, Ukraine’s military policies helped to reinforce gender norms that fail to distribute family responsibilities equally. Surveys show many Ukrainians expect women to take care of all household, education, child-rearing and elder-care activities. Meanwhile, Russia’s increased targeting of civilian infrastructure has left many across Ukraine without power or water in recent weeks — with a disproportionate impact on women who carry out these domestic activities.

Of course, enshrining gender equality in law is not a catchall solution for entrenched inequality. While Ukraine’s parliament is considering legislative changes to the country’s conscription policy, any law that passes isn’t likely to be a radical deviation from the current sex-discriminatory policy. The evidence suggests that the growing number of Ukrainian servicewomen, as well as those who wish to serve but can’t, face a long battle in their fight for equal treatment.

Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Security and Foreign Policy Initiative at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute. She is co-author of “Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice” (Stanford University Press, 2020) and “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars” (Georgetown University Press 2019).