“Invisible battalion”: how Ukrainian women secured the right to fight on a par with men

Ukraine (OpenDemocracy) – For four years, Ukrainian civil society has been fighting in the war against Russia. The war effort came from below – and women are playing an active role.

The protagonist of Serhiy Zhadan’s poem “The Recruitment Office” doesn’t want to join the army. It’s easy to understand why. Before 2014, the Ukrainian army was a wretched sight, with missiles crashing into apartment buildings and ammunition dumps exploding. Emerging from the ruins of the Soviet empire, this poor, corrupt non-bloc state hadn’t anticipated that it would have to put up much of a defence against anyone.

The army was underfunded financially and in terms of attention, and while the military hardware rusted away, conscripts built dachas for their generals. In the words of Zhadan, Ukraine’s most popular contemporary poet: “Here’s the bottom line, Mum: count me out, I’m not going [to the army].”

Everything changed in 2014. After EuroMaidan and pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s escape from the country, the empire struck back. Unexpected Russian military aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine required an urgent defensive operation, and the response mounted by Ukrainian society was quicker than the one mustered by the Ukrainian state. Aside from the dozens of volunteer battalions that were immediately formed to aid the so-called “Anti-Terrorist Operation”, who fought on the frontlines at times literally in slippers, Ukrainian society took on the challenge of providing the army with everything it needed, from quadcopters, gunsights and thermographic cameras to nails and staples.

It was only much later that the authorities responded to the situation, pouring their own finances and attention into the effort, bringing yesterday’s volunteers into the fold (over the past three or four years, the word “volunteer” has specifically come to refer to those who raise funds for the material support of a unit, buy whatever’s necessary and take it over to the front). Most of the volunteer battalions gradually integrated themselves into the National Guard system (subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) or the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence gradually began reforming the food supply and nutrition systems. Many volunteers have established their own charitable funds. The Ukrainian army remains imperfect and insufficiently modernised, but the speed with which it rose from the ashes through the efforts of civil society is a phenomenon still awaiting investigation.

Women have been actively involved in all these processes. Contra certain feminists who claim that wars are nothing but “macho games”, Ukrainian women have refused to “reconcile” men between themselves or to define themselves as the victims of male conflicts; adopting an active civic stance, they’ve played an integral role in the armed resistance. While the en-masse entry of women into the army may have come as something of a surprise to the outside observer, there are now over 20,000 of them in the Ukrainian Armed Forces – some 8% of the total number of troops. Only 2,000 have risen to officer rank; not a single one has been promoted to the rank of general.

But as women have poured into the army, the state has been slow to ensure that they enjoy adequate conditions of service, both legally and practically speaking. c, supported by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women, was devised to draw public attention to the role played by women in the conflict.

The Invisible Battalion project was conceived and put into action by women soldiers. Having faced a whole host of problems during their army service and encountered gender inequality challenges of both a legal and practical nature, these women came up with an advocacy campaign focused on their own rights, opportunities and representations in the popular consciousness. The campaign involved working with the public and lobbying the authorities (though without expressing support for any specific political forces). They also enlisted the support of sociologists to carry out the first – and so far the only – investigation of the problems facing women in the conflict. The sample consisted of 42 participants, the only selection criterion being first-hand experience of front-line fighting (demographic profiles, political views and battalion affiliations were not taken into consideration).

Olena Maksymenko is a journalist who became an activist in the space of a few months and soon found herself on the front line. She didn’t take part in the study, but her story is emblematic of how Ukrainian women are reconsidering their role in society in an era of profound change.

From culture to the front line

A hitherto apolitical culture journalist who, by her own admission, wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of the Ukrainian prime minister, Olena Maksymenko resolved to report on the Euromaidan protests.

Detained in Crimea in the spring of 2014, she worked to bring cultural festivals to the liberated towns of east Ukraine before finding herself on the front in 2015. She served one stint in the Nikolai Pirogov First Voluntary Mobile Hospital, and then four in the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps Hospitallers, which was formed by the far-right group Right Sector. Olena’s deployment locations included Shirokino, Peski, Starohnatovka and Gnutovo, and some of her stories wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. Like the one about a hilltop operation on a wounded soldier who died at the very moment the sun came. Or the one about a music-obsessed comrade-in-arms who wouldn’t go anywhere without his speakers… which began blaring out “The End” by The Doors as the unit came under fire one day.

After her service, Olena spent some time working on a social integration programme for military personnel. Eventually, however, she returned to military journalism, and now devotes her energies exclusively to the latter. Many women continue to serve, and are doing so indefinitely – “until the war comes to an end”. An end that’s not in sight.

In the autumn of 2015, Olena was photographed for the Invisible Battalion project, thereby helping to raise public awareness of the problems faced by female soldiers during their service.

The Invisible Battalion

In The Unwomanly Face of War, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich maintains that “[e]verything we know about war we know with a ‘man’s voice’.” The Invisible Battalion study, conversely, provides a platform for the voices of women – those of soldiers, a volunteer and several experts. Its field and theoretical components are supplemented by a photograph selection and a calendar featuring those selfsame photos.

The “invisibility” of women in the war is first and foremost a legal one. The legal framework established by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, which also encompasses the regulatory requirements of the Ministry of Health, turned out to be hopelessly outdated, premised as it is on the Soviet-era patriarchal paradigm of “maternity protection” and failing to factor in women’s physical labour, whether complex or light.

The research team discovered with some horror that, as per Ministry of Health regulations, women in the workplace cannot carry loads in excess of seven kilos – which, in the eyes of any mother of a toddler (or, indeed, any mistress of a large cat), is a risible proviso. A whole host of military professions were thereby closed off to women, including that of photographer (a World War II-era relic, given the heavy cameras of the time) and drone operator, in addition to a number of professions that involve no heavy lifting (interpreting, for instance). But women were allowed to serve as nurses (because casualties that need to be removed from the battlefield obviously all weigh in at under seven kilos), cooks and field banya directors. They were allowed, in other words, to serve men in “heroic” combat posts – and they certainly couldn’t vie with them when it came to military careers.

Such was the state of play for women in the war, with some never officially registering, and others registering as accountants… to perform the duties of grenade launcher operators. Which would all be a barrel of fun, of course, if only it didn’t hurt women financially (from 200 euros a month, to say nothing of premiums and bonuses), deprive them of veterans’ benefits (the law “On the status of war veterans and guarantees of their social protection” provides rather a long list of these), deny them compensation (how are you supposed to document an injury to a cook?), rob them of promotion opportunities, and simply cheat them of the right to be recognised.

This legal invisibility inevitably entails infrastructural invisibility – no uniforms, no footwear, no feminine sanitary protection, no front-line access to gynaecological services. Only in 2017 did the Ministry of Defence finally develop a range of women’s underwear for Ukrainian servicewomen, and even then its quality left a lot to be desired and ended up causing an uproar. Prior to that, women were forced to buy everything they needed out of their own pockets or to rely on volunteer-provided supplies.

“Diana Makarova [head of the eponymous foundation] has helped out a lot,” says Olena. “I popped in just to get a few bits and bobs but came out laden with everything from thermal underwear to trousers to cartridge pouches.”

Ukraine’s servicewomen have also come up against a wall of incomprehension on the part of their male comrades-in-arms: as independently confirmed by several of the study’s respondents, male soldiers have had to re-evaluate their worldviews and get to grips with the fact that women, too, can serve as fully-fledged combatants. Out-and-out discrimination aside, stories abound about men’s overzealous attempts to protect their female colleagues. In volunteer units, incidentally, the gender equality situation is better than in non-volunteer ones.

By Ministry of Defense of Ukraine – CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainian servicewomen, spurred on by civic (and sometimes personal) motivation – some have always wanted to serve, others have witnessed Russian troops entering their home villages – have endured these conditions without entertaining much hope of recognition or reward. The medical unit of the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, which, in contrast to other volunteer units, reached no agreement with the authorities regarding integration into the official structures of the Armed Forces or the National Guard, failed to receive a single penny from the state and kitted itself out entirely at its own expense (volunteer-collected funds aside).

Olena Maksymenko received a war veteran identification card on account of her service in the First Voluntary Mobile Hospital. Of the women soldiers in the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps interviewed by us for the study, not a single one has been issued with a formal acknowledgment of service, and not a single one expects to receive such an acknowledgment. We were also made aware of cases where social workers paid visits to children of women serving at the front and interrogated them about their “neglectful” mothers; men, needless to say, encountered no such problems. Our study’s respondents told us these stories with profound resentment in their voices (“we didn’t leave our kids to go on some massive bender, you know – we left to get involved with something of profound social importance…”)

As the study confirmed, the media portrayal of female military personnel also leaves much to be desired. Journalists have been in no hurry to give coverage to the above-mentioned problems; instead, they’ve cultivated exotic images of perfectly made up and manicured bunker-ladies fighting the good fight – with their beneficent husbands’ blessings, of course. One glossy magazine, meanwhile, went one better, publishing a selection of quotations by Nadezhda Savchenko… alongside a picture of her face photoshopped onto someone else’s body (with Savchenko imprisoned in Russia at the time, a photo of the real her wearing a white shirt, as required by the format of the magazine’s eponymous column, would have been impossible to source).

And here’s another striking example of invisibility, brought to our attention during a presentation of our research in Dnipro. A girl in military fatigues showed us one of the certificates she needed to obtain a veteran identification card. Its printed text stated said that the certificate had been issued to Ms. So-and-so to certify that he…

Military gender equality

The first presentation of our research in December 2015 attracted a large audience and even provoked a degree of tension. During the discussion component of the event, a Defence Ministry official announced that the agency had openings for psychologists, and that she would happily encourage women to apply.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been moving columns away from enemy bombardments and you’re suggesting I should work as a psychologist?” Olena Mosiychuk, a respondent and paramedic with the far-right Azov regiment, retorted.

And so the Invisible Battalion campaign got off to a vigorous start. The project’s authors and the servicewomen involved in it had to engage with the press, public opinion and the Ministry of Defence itself. Initially, the latter failed to grasp exactly what was being demanded of it. We were forced to explain that in any 21st century army, advanced technology trumps physical strength. That the differences between average male and female dimensions are of far less consequence than is commonly supposed. That women have no need of patronising male “care”, that they can look after their own reproductive health, that they’ll figure out for themselves what does them harm and how (if at all) they’ll give birth afterwards. That men and women should enjoy the same career development opportunities as long as they have the necessary qualifications.

The explanations eventually hit home, and six months later the campaign yielded its first results. In the summer of 2016, the Ministry of Defence made changes to the rank-and-file, non-commissioned officer and starshina staff position lists, the women’s columns of which had previously been full of blanks.

Meanwhile, society at large also took the women’s demands as read. For the most part, the campaign was sympathetically received, and media coverage gradually become more clear-eyed. The Invisible Battalion project calendar received a National Festival of Social Advertising award. As for the servicewomen themselves, participating in our study was just the beginning for them: they promptly began attending equal rights rallies.

The Ukrainian parliament, too, joined the efforts to achieve military gender equality. A cross-party women’s group called Equal Opportunities prepared Draft Bill no. 6109 (“On amendments to certain laws of Ukraine concerning the provision of equal rights and opportunities for women and men throughout their service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and other military formations”), which was adopted on first reading two years after the campaign began. The bill reinforces the principle that women perform military service on equal terms with men; this means equal access to army posts and military ranks, the same retirement age, and equal detailing conditions. Analogous changes were made in the US only in 2015 – so Ukraine is only two years behind the global trend.

Advancing the female agenda

The campaign also precipitated other, wider-reaching changes. In particular, it gave rise to a discussion of why 450 civilian professions were closed off to women on account of how “physically demanding” they were. By 2017, the issue of professional inequality in civilian life began to receive considerable media coverage thanks to the efforts of feminist activists; towards the end of that year, the Ministry of Health finally revoked Decree No. 256, which had limited the professions open to women for almost a quarter of a century.

Late 2017 also saw the release of a documentary film of the same name as the campaign. Shot by three women directors and focusing on six servicewomen, the film explores the challenges they’ve faced over the course of their service, from evacuating casualties along the “road of life” to recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder to reintegrating into civilian life.

After serving five stints as a paramedic-cum-journalist, Olena Maksymenko worked on a social integration programme because, as she puts it, she had “a profound understanding of how stricken these people are when they return from the front.” Eventually, however, she went back to journalism and now works as a frontline correspondent, her time divided between Kyiv and the war zone. She pens frequent articles for the Come Back Alive NGO, always reminding readers of how they can donate money towards essential army supplies. It is precisely in this role, says Elena, that she feels most useful.

“I’m not only telling my readers about the war, about who’s fighting and what it all looks like, I’m also telling the guys and girls at the front that people do actually care,” she adds. “My pieces bring in real money: ‘likes’ and reposts for them means revenue for Come Back Alive – revenue we use to buy thermal imagers, drones and other things that’ll help you survive.”

Ukrainians have been repelling Russian aggression for almost four years now, and they’re not about to stop anytime soon. Bill No. 6109 may have been passed, but a number of other women’s issues await public awareness campaigns of their own; in particular, the issue of women’s access to secondary and higher military education hasn’t yet been resolved.

Nevertheless, the confident presence of the female agenda within Ukrainian civil society allows me to predict that the future will witness progress both in the legislative sphere and in everyday gender equality.

This report prepared by GANNA GRYTSENKO for OpenDemocracy

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