In a moment of global crisis with the airwaves and social pages awash in images from the escalating war in Ukraine, many were stopped cold by the photo and video on the front page on the New York Times of Ukrainian women volunteers, weeping, rifles in hand, as they headed to the front lines to fight for their country. Those Ukrainian women, many of whom never thought they would find themselves in a war, let alone fighting in one, may turn out to be one of their country’s most powerful weapons.
Women have been part of the Ukrainian military since 1993 but their roles and numbers expanded when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and again when women were granted the right to fight in combat in 2016. But following legislation passed in 2018 that ensured equal treatment of women in the military, numbers grew further, and women were permitted to serve in combat specialties, including as armored vehicle gunners, infantry commanders, and snipers. According to 2020 data, more than 31,000 women were serving in the Ukrainian armed forces at that time. As of March 2021, that number was 22.5 percent. In comparison, women comprise 14.4 percent of active duty military forces in the U.S.
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Women have also been central to Ukrainian society and have been essential to sustaining democracy there, and not just through military service but in politics as well. Women held 21 percent of the seats in the Ukrainian parliament after the most recent elections and according to the global gender gap report, the country has made huge strides toward closing an array of gender gaps in recent years. That growing commitment to gender equity in Ukraine stands in sharp contrast with Russia under Putin. He has steadily rolled back women’s rights there, restricting women from working in more than 450 professions and rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence. In the Russian parliament, women hold just 16 percent of political positions and while women are permitted to serve in a limited capacity in the Russian military, their numbers are low compared to many other nations.
Since the invasion, untold numbers of Ukrainian women from all walks of life have stepped forward and volunteered to serve on the front lines. They include women like the former Miss Ukraine, Anastasiia Lenna and Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik. The video of a 79-year-old volunteer Valentyna Kostyantynovska learning to fire a Kalashnikov has gone viral. She told Reuters it was her dream to take up arms and fight for her country. In the life and death struggle for freedom, every one of those women can make a difference.
And, Ukrainian women are already showing the difference they make in terms of both might and morale. Women on the front lines, both in and out of uniform, have confronted Russian soldiers, forcing them to call their mothers and explain why they are fighting. One woman confronting armed Russian soldiers told them to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so they would grow when he dies. These simple acts of humanizing conflict, involving mothers, may prove profoundly valuable to the war effort. National Security experts see those moments as indicative of a broader problem for Russia – that many Russian soldiers don’t know why there are there or what they are fighting for. Some Russian mothers on the other end of the phone imploring their sons to walk away could weaken Russian military resolve when they need it most.
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The war in Ukraine is about many things but certainly protecting democracy in the face of tyranny is most important among them. Around the world, where women have played a central role in that fight, democracy has been more likely to prevail. The crisis in Ukraine changes minute to minute and the outcome is far from certain. But one thing is for sure; the strength and courage of Ukrainian women should not be overlooked or discounted. When history is written, it may just be their collective courage, strength and power that made the difference.
Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan women’s political leadership organization. She tweets @LaurenLeaderAIT