Ukrainian women at war: from Women’s Sotnya to Invisible Battalion

women in Donbas


Ukraine, War in the Donbas

Article by: Yevheniya Oliynyk

The first sociological study on women’s participation in the Donbas war – metaphorically named the “Invisible Battalion” (as women’s experience in the Ukrainian army is largely invisible to the public and legislation) – was presented in Kyiv. Female soldiers are not allowed to hold certain important positions in the army; they work in worse conditions and must constantly refute stereotype images. The authors of the study are convinced that women fight much better than some male generals, who tend to set up obstacles for women soldiers and volunteers.

The study was based on 50 interviews with men and women who have served in the combat zone. A separate section is devoted to women’s participation in Euromaidan and the Women’s Sotnya (Hundred) as shortly after the revolution many female activists set off to the eastern front.

Sociologists first explained the motivation that drives these female volunteers. They joined the fight for patriotic reasons and plan to remain until the end of the war. These women are usually much more motivated than men as they must overcome many stereotypes, prove their right to fight along with men and accept the fact that they cannot count on social protection.


Young fighter near village of Luhansk, Donetsk Oblast – September, 2014

Ukrainian legislation lists professions that are not open to females. In the military, women cannot be reconnaissance scouts, snipers, drivers, photographers, projectionists, instructors or translators. Mariya Berlinska, research coordinator and director of the Aerial Reconnaissance Centre states that all positions with the title “chief” or “commander” are not available to women.

These rules are spelled out in two documents: “Provisional list of positions of ordinary sergeants and petty officers” dated May 2014 and “Order of the Minister of Defense on officer positions, to which women under contract may be appointed”.

Women often perform the same duties as men, but are not registered anywhere and officially hold other positions. Accordingly, they are not entitled to certain benefits and social coverage.


Women soldiers during rehearsal for Ukrainian Independance Day parade – Kyiv, August 2015

This situation was not known before the war. Some people were aware of Nadiya Savchenko who demonstrated before the Ministry of Defense to meet with the minister and get permission to study and work as a pilot.

“But that was before the war. It’s another story now. Many women have been to the front, were wounded and suffered concussions… and yet, they’re still called “cooks.” remarks Berlinska.

The study has revealed a number of problems, which sociologists say are not usually mentioned in the media. For example: no suitable military uniforms for women, lack of proper gynecological care, post-traumatic syndrome and reintegration problems. Several women told researchers that social services had tried to take away their children while they were in the combat zone.

When asked whether the army would become more effective thanks to female participation, most respondents answered in the affirmative. Women often make better snipers and doctors thanks to finer and more developed motor skills. In addition, they are more disciplined and less prone to alcoholism. Some men who answered this question admit that there are positive examples of women’s participation in hostilities, but they still believe that war is not for women. Stereotypes are common among women themselves: many of them think that they carry out minor duties compared to those assigned to men.


Pravy Sektor fighters during military exercises in Khust, Transcarpathia – June 2015

Sociologist and researcher Tamara Martsenyuk is convinced that in modern society, women should have the right to choose whether they want to cook borshch or die on the barricades.

“Our government’s  paternalism is rather outdated. Many international documents declare that the role of women is slowly changing – not only are they viewed as victims of conflict, but as representatives in conflict resolution, together with men.” she stated.

Tamara Martsenyuk says that the reason for banning women from high-ranking positions stems from the fact that the armed forces are part of the labour market. Therefore, women’s rights should be determined as part of labour legislation. Specific rules on women’s labour dates back to the Soviet era… for example, women are not allowed to lift heavy objects or drive certain vehicles.

Colonel Vitaliy Holota, head of the military social division of the Personnel Department with the Armed Forces explains that women cannot occupy senior positions because they have fewer opportunities to train in specialized military fields. He adds that many proposals to expand the Armed Forces have been rejected by the Ministry of Social Affairs.


During award ceremony of the Armed Forces of Ukraine – March 2015

However, Colonel Holota does not think this list is discriminatory. Working as a chauffeur/driver in the army implies not only driving. “A driver is responsible for his vehicle, knows how to camouflage and repair it. With all due respect, women cannot always cope with these situations.”

There are currently 14,500 women serving in the army, almost 2,000 of them are officers, and 35 hold senior positions in the Ministry of Defence, the General Staff, and the different types of Armed Forces of Ukraine. 938 women are listed as active soldiers.





Translated by: Christine Chraibi

Source: Radio Liberty

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  1. Avatar miguel says:

    Difficult issue.
    I imagine one of the main subjects have been, men go off to war, and women are there for those that do not die to repopulate the nation.
    It does not mean they are any less patriotic that while most of the men go to front, the women stay in the ‘safe’ areas of manufacturing and business and logistics to keep the country running efficiently while men go off to fight.
    That concept has kept many nations that were at war from going under, even though they won the battles.

    The ones that go to fight give up their positions at employment, there is a need to fill that.
    The other issue is taking care of families children and homes.

    Another is those that are injured to almost the point of invalidity.
    Women by nature are better nurturers and volunteers will be needed to address that.

    With a volunteer Army, I think it is advantageous to give the women that want it the fighting experience, training, and potentially a military education that is equal if not greater then University learning.
    However with a draft and conscription, which at times is needed, it does not make logical sense to force them to join.
    With the global world becoming more and more populated, there is more people available to fill needed positions, and when you have a large unemployment rate which is both men and women, it is the job of government to direct those people to the positions they are needed, the government has to let them know.
    People want their government to give them a direction so they can contribute patriotically.

    In Ukraine’s case, many of the population see the government losing or battling for a stalemate, and many of these unemployed want to contribute.
    Yes, there has been a problem with conscription and ‘draft dodgers’.

    There are a lot of single women who want to contribute, that contribution should be facilitated.
    Or spouses of military, whose whole life has been influenced by the military and sometimes they ‘train’ with their husbands and feel they are better able to enter the military then some fresh recruits.

    Men to a fault see the military as a way of supporting a family and building one.
    They like other employees hold onto that ‘right’ or duty to be in the military highly as a corporation of seamstress’s hold that you must be female to work in that field or nurses reject males taking away entry level and other positions in a hospital environment.

    So ultimately it comes down to what you can afford, (having a bunch of uniforms on hand that are in a large variety of bra and hip sizes is not easy or cheap, including bullet proof vests), plus the woman and children issues and where to draw the line is acceptable for the women who want to serve.

    Ukraine has come a long way from a only male military, but I think it can go farther.
    ALSO, women who advocate for those different positions need to be informed other the penalties or challenges that are associated with moving into other positions.
    And decide what is acceptable for them, ultimately, I think a women dominated review board to be put together annually should review policy changes that are acceptable and not.
    Total military budget is a concern.
    Will women accept their higher costs of health care or uniforms being deducted from their pay?
    Or will they demand government absorb this cost?
    If they demand that, it would seem to most men that the women are actually getting paid more for basic duties – they are getting a bonus for being a female, and that will cause some discussions and probably arguments in the fighting forces.
    Although in actuality the men, if they are getting equal health care fore their families, are remaining on equal footing as far as pay.
    The government pays for the health care of the men’s families is no different then paying for women serving in the military.

    Many issues and each society at different growth rates has to determine for itself what is acceptable for both sides of the gender argument for the military.
    Women are a highly valued contribution to many fighting forces.
    I imagine a balance will be struck.

    It is obvious that with Ukraine kicking out a lot of GRU and Kremlin planted agents, which they should be doing left and right and all the way to the top, inside of Ukrainian military there is will be a demand for someone to fill that void.

    Qualified women who want that position should be encouraged to apply and serve.

    If there are men rejecting that, to them I say, you let your selves be infiltrated by RF forces and you lost Crimea because your soldiers refused to protect Ukrainian interests above RF ones.
    Your male officers and generals failed Ukraine when they were most needed.
    It is time for Ukrainian women to be given that chance, you may be surprised how effective and beneficial they are.
    Your generals also allowed Ukrainian military to become a force of rusted out equipment and low moral.
    Something needs changing, and more Ukrainian women in the military may have made the difference.