Ukraine's female soldiers complain of discrimination

There are currently 42,000 Ukrainian women serving in the military, with 5,000 at the front, despite ongoing discrimination issues

Female soldiers complain they are often passed over for combat duties, despite being trained to fight on the front line (photo: DW)
Female soldiers complain they are often passed over for combat duties, despite being trained to fight on the front line (photo: DW)


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

"Unfortunately, the company commander is categorically anti-women," said Ganzha, adding that she had wanted to switch to 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 she was repeatedly offered assignments in the hinterland, but finally managed to get into the air reconnaissance unit of a brigade in Donetsk.

Yulia Mykytenko, 28, was already an army officer when Russia attacked Ukraine. She joined up in 2016, and was keen to work in reconnaissance, but was rejected on account of her gender.

After serving in administrative roles on a military staff, Mykytenko eventually completed advanced officer training, reaching the rank of second lieutenant.

"When I was given command of a reconnaissance troop, 80% of the people serving there transferred to other troops, just because they had a woman commander," recalled Mykytenko.

'Officially, all positions on combat missions are open to women'

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. The NGO's research group investigates the situation of women in the army, highlights problems and seeks solutions.

"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, so without pay and other social guarantees. Or else they were officially registered in positions such as cook or seamstress," explained Hrytsenko. If they were wounded, it was difficult to explain what they were doing in combat at all. Public pressure eventually led to a change in the law, and finally, in 2018, women were officially allowed to serve on combat missions.

When Yulia Mykytenko took command of a reconnaissance unit in 2017, she worked hard to gain the trust of her colleagues. "I was always present, on every mission. That way I gradually made a name for myself," she said. "Some of those who were categorically opposed to me later came back to the troop. It turned out that serving in a unit with a female commander was not so bad after all."

"As long as there's no shortage of personnel, women's desire to serve is regarded as a whim," said Lesya Ganzha. From what she has observed, she said the attitude toward women in the army is not the same as toward men. For example, when her commander was recruiting soldiers for a mission in the Kyiv region, she and two other female soldiers were simply passed over. Ganzha described the argument that women should be spared as "soft discrimination," a view shared by Hanna Hrytsenko.

"Officially, all positions on combat missions are open to women, but in reality you have to fight for them."

Sexual harassment on duty

At the start of Mykytenko's career, she said, colleagues made inappropriate jokes and innuendo.

"I had to react roughly and harshly when this happened; there was no other way of dealing with it. My husband, who was also in the military, helped me with advice, supported me emotionally and protected me physically, too. But after he was killed, a number of officers made completely inappropriate remarks," she said, adding that this was one of the reasons why she switched to a different place of work.

Ganzha believes she is shielded from harassment by her age. "Young women defend themselves in their own way. Usually, they find themselves a protector," she said. "One young woman told me she had been harassed. The commander made overtures to her on her very first day, which she rejected. That was the end of the matter. But I know that in another company things were more serious, and a young woman had to transfer to a different company."

Several human rights organizations help female soldiers who have experienced sexual harassment. "We spoke to a number of people who gave us anonymous information about such cases. But we still don't know the true numbers," said Hrytsenko of Invisible Battalion.

Increasing number of women at officer level

The activist points to another problem regarding women's access to military training. "There are hurdles that prevent women from getting in. Of course, they are unofficial rather than official hurdles," she said.

Young women have been allowed to attend military academies in Ukraine since 2019. Mykytenko was put in charge of the first all-female sub-unit of a training company in Kyiv. "More than half the academy staff categorically rejected the idea of a sub-unit consisting of women," she said. "I see it as a positive thing, because many of those first young women to be accepted were highly motivated. Their performance was better than that of the young men, particularly in class, but they also did very well in the physical training."

In their current report, the researchers from Invisible Battalion noted another positive development: More and more women are attaining the rank of officer. In 2014, there were slightly more than 1,600 female officers in the Ukrainian army. Today, there are more than 5,000.

And, in 2021, the Ukrainian army appointed its first female general: Tetiana Ostashchenko, commander of the Ukrainian Medical Forces.

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