The number of women in the Ukrainian army has been increasing since the Russian invasion. But the army admits few women to the front lines. ‘You have to stand up for yourself as a woman, otherwise you will not be respected.’
Machine gunner Oksana has experienced it a few times now at the front: a male officer from another unit comes by to gather soldiers for urgent reinforcement, she picks up her weapon to go along, but then the officer says: ‘I have soldiers needed, not girls.’
Or take that time recently, when her own comrades-in-arms were under heavy fire and she and others prepared to come to the rescue. She was told by the battalion commander: ‘You are not going, it is too dangerous for you.’ “I then said to him: ‘I will go, those are my boys there’,” says 19-year-old Oksana during an interview on the eastern front. “I was way too rude to the commander, but you have to stand up for yourself as a woman, otherwise you will not be respected.”
Defending the country is considered a man’s job in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is working increasingly rigorously to mobilize the male population in order to maintain sufficient forces in the war with Russia. But the military does little to allow women who volunteer for combat to enter the battlefield.
The Ukrainian armed forces have 43,000 women, the army said in October. That is almost twice as many as at the beginning of last year’s Russian invasion. But only five thousand women have a role at the front.
Oksana, who is referred to only by her first name for security reasons, is one of the few who managed to reach the trenches. In the 72nd Brigade she operates a machine gun that, weighing 60 kilograms, is heavier than herself.
It took a lot of effort to get here, she says in a village at the front in southeastern Ukraine. Explosions sound from the distance near the lines where her unit has dug in. In a few days it will be Oksana’s turn again to relieve her comrades in arms in rows of trees with trenches.
Like many men, she felt the need to defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion last year. She expected that as a young woman with long hair in a braid she would not have a chance at the army recruitment office, so through friends she joined a civilian battalion in Ivano-Frankivsk, her hometown in western Ukraine. When her male friends left for the front to serve in a new brigade and she wanted to join, an official from that brigade presented her with two options: nurse or secretary at headquarters.
The vast majority of women in the Ukrainian army end up in support positions this way. “The Soviet way of thinking is still deeply ingrained in our army,” says Oksana. Only after much insistence was she given permission for a combat task at the front.
Ukrainian activist groups complain about obstacles for female soldiers. They are achieving success with a campaign for female combat uniforms: in August the army presented the first equipment for women. Revolutionary by Ukrainian standards, because before the invasion women still had to wear heels during military parades.
But the new uniforms won’t be distributed until next year. Until then, women fight in men’s overalls or have to hope that volunteers or foreign governments provide suitable clothing – the Dutch army sent 65 pallets to Ukraine in September with equipment for female soldiers.
Sexism in the trenches also means that women sometimes feel that they have not one, but two opponents at the front. “Guys often try to hit me up,” says Oksana. “But there is no place for relationships at the front. Then you can’t work.”
A female soldier must hope for protection from her commander, she says. “He must say to the others: ‘Oksana is our sister, nothing more or less than that.’ Luckily mine does.” But she sees that women in other units struggle with sexist behavior from commanders and have difficulty getting a place at the front. “That behavior will not change as long as there are no more girls at the front,” says Oksana.
More than a year of combat experience has hardened her. She knows what it’s like to be under fire in cold and damp trenches, to be hit by an artillery shell and to recover. What it’s like to lose your best comrade in arms: Her friend Oleh Koiliak (30), also from Ivano-Frankivsk, was killed by a Russian artillery shell in April. And she knows what it’s like to fire at people. “I see a silhouette, realize it is a person, but I start shooting anyway. I shoot out of instinct, out of fear. Because every time I see a dead body, I think: that could be me.”
Her front vocabulary also makes her indistinguishable from her male comrades-in-arms. A Russian soldier is ‘a fagot’, a Russian drone is ‘a fagot in the sky’.
Her family hoped she would come home after being injured by an artillery shell. Her older brother, who to Oksana’s disapproval does not join the fight and lives in the Czech Republic, regularly calls her to tell her to come home. But Oksana says she doesn’t have that luxury because of the Russian invasion. “The front is my home now.”