Feminism and the Role of Ukrainian Women During the War
The contribution of women to war efforts are often overlooked in the numerous historical narratives of conflicts in favour of the valorized experiences of men as soldiers and leaders.
The Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine hosted an all-women panel on March 23, 2023 that convened experts and practitioners active in the field of gender studies to dismantle the aforementioned narratives by shedding light on the history, current status, and potential of women’s involvement in the war. Despite them often being historically overlooked in war scholarship, women’s stories were brought to the forefront with the panellists sharing their research alongside recommendations for the promotion of gender equality and inclusivity within these contexts and beyond.
Dr. Oksana Kis, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the Institute of Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, shared some historical context regarding Ukrainian women’s role during war, noting that women from different social strata and regions are all involved in activity aiding the war effort. These activities can be combat related, but they also involve work done on the homefront — a term Kis says women use to describe the reproductive and care work that often goes unnoticed but still contributes to the defense of the country.
Anna Dovgopol, Women Lead in Emergencies Coordinator at CARE Ukraine, echoed Kis’ sentiment but showed that many women’s organizations have formed and are currently raising the profile of women’s humanitarian efforts during the war. As such, the visibility of this type of labour has shifted from the private to the public. Along these lines, Kis highlights that the line between “reproductive work” and “productive work” has been blurred as women's activities take on increased social significance and serve as the often overlooked foundation for many efforts.
Kis also noted that the practical skills, knowledge, and the entrepreneurial abilities that women are gaining through their wartime volunteer efforts can, and should, be put to use after the war for the process of reconstruction. The rebuilding of Ukraine, however, is already ongoing and must consider the recovery of social and care infrastructure as critical infrastructure for the revitalization of Ukraine.
Galyna Kotliuk, the Gender and Democracy Program Coordinator at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, passionately emphasized that part of rebuilding Ukraine involves making it more inclusive, publicly accessible, safe, and overall providing increased and improved spaces that support the needs of women, children, and those with disabilities.
This sense of intersectionality was evident throughout the panel as speakers cited the demographic diversity of volunteer activities related to the war effort. Kis especially highlighted how women of various ages, socio-economic standing, financial situations, and level of education are participating in community service and volunteer initiatives. This should be considered in the policies and initiatives developed for reconstruction, as Kotliuk noted:
“If we really want to ensure sustainable and inclusive recovery of Ukraine this synergy [between civil society organizations and the government] has to be there. It has to be guaranteed and the voices of civil society have to be heard."
Kotliuk underscored that women should be involved in the decision-making processes as their voices are essential to rebuilding an inclusive Ukraine.
Having shared these recommendations, panellists also acknowledged the concern of gender-based violence, especially against women, during and after the war. It would be remiss not to mention the concerning rise in gender-based violence, with sexual assault being a prevelant a tactic by Russian soldier. This is an issue that all levels of Ukrainian society will have to manage, giving further credence to how essential it is that women’s voices be included in the process.
Women’s role during the war has extended from the “homefront” to the frontlines in greater numbers than ever. Anna Kvit, Visiting Research Fellow at University College London, is a researcher for the “Invisible Battalion” project which documents the participation of women in the Ukrainian military and advocates for women veterans. Kvit shared fascinating insights into the history of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Initially, women faced formal discrimination in that they could only occupy so-called “support roles” in the military, meaning they could work solely as nurses and secretaries. This served as a perpetuation of the perception that associates women with peace and security and restricts them from entering combat-focussed roles. However, this anachronistic view has drastically shifted as the number of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine has doubled since 2014 — all of whom have done so on a completely voluntary basis.
Although women still face gender inequity within the military, Kvit argued that surveys stating 83% of respondents feel women should have equal rights in the military represent a positive trend towards the acceptance of gender equality among the ranks.
The role of Ukrainian women during the war is impossible to condense into one description. In fact, at the very center of this event was the notion that women’s roles are diverse and contribute to the war in a variety of ways. Whether on the homefront or on the frontlines, women play an active role in the war effort and will continue to be involved—and occupy an essential role—in the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war’s end.