By Daniel Perez
“Our new opposition has a female face to it,” wrote Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska in a post on social media already a year ago, sharing pictures of women in military uniforms. With more than 50,000 women enlisted as of January 2023, Ukraine has one of the armed forces with the highest share of women in the world. At the same time, only a handful of articles describing women’s situation during the war find their way into my sphere of information.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to know. The gender perspective seems to find no place in the recommended news list of male readers. My daily algorithm-based selection of news appears instead to mainly describe how the war affects men: Ukraine imposing travel bans for the male population between ages 18-60 and enforcing men’s participation in the war effort, reports of Russian men from lower socioeconomic groups being forced or strongly persuaded to fight in the war, and so on. Meanwhile, articles focusing on women have mostly described them as worried mothers and wives of soldiers, as well as victims of gender-based violence. This gives the impression that the media is reinforcing old gender roles by omitting the diverse ways in which women take part in wars and consequently postponing development towards gender equality for the peaceful times not yet in sight.
Perhaps it’s not a big deal. Wars have historically been portrayed as fought, ended, and waged by men. In the modern day and age, though, traditional gender roles are being challenged on all fronts, even military ones. Settling for a narrow reading list leaves out the complex situation for women who have been and continue to be present in, or near, warzones. The cycle of suffering is then allowed to repeat when these issues are not addressed.
What is then lacking from the daily selection of news? What more is there to know about this conflict than what can be glanced at first hand? And more precisely, how can the Russo-Ukrainian war be understood from a gender perspective?
Since the beginning of the war, many Ukrainians have been pulled in two directions: evacuation or conscription. According to UN Women, women and children constituted at least 90 per cent of the estimated 7,9 million who fled the country at the start. Data from the International Organization for Migration showed that 60 per cent of the adult internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in Ukraine were female. This type of information is usually already covered by the media. More in-depth, a rapid gender analysis (RGA) conducted by UN Women and CARE International showed that incidents of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly domestic violence and conflict-related sexual violence, are reportedly increasing while services for GBV survivors are insufficient. Furthermore, displaced women face increased pressure to provide for their families while male family members are involved in defense activities. The RGA states that displaced women, particularly those who face multiple forms of discrimination, are disproportionately affected by the crisis due to the variety of pressures they face.
What is there to know about the shift in the military? Out of the 50,000 women enlisted in the army, about 10 percent are placed on the front lines, according to Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense, Hanna Malyar. That number of combatants would not have been officially recognized ten years ago. At the time of the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, women were excluded from combat roles in the Ukrainian army. This changed in 2018, when female soldiers received the same status as men. Due to the increasing Russian presence at the border, Ukraine passed additional legislation in December 2021, significantly expanding the pool of women required to register for military service in case of a war.
Women are being impacted in a similar way to previous military conflicts, says UN Women, but there is more taking place simultaneously. Media coverage of the war seems to be nuancing the image of the “dutiful soldier” by including stories of men’s insecurities and women’s choice to defend the country and its future. The Washington Post published an article a year ago interviewing four women who had joined the war as soldiers and medics in some capacity. One of the interviewed soldiers, Daria Vasylchenko, mentioned: ”Around ninth grade boys began studying how to use weapons at school and girls were shuttled into courses on medical aid. [I] rushed to learn all the medical skills quickly, then joined the boys’ class”. Another article published by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard argues that “new war narratives don’t differentiate between fighting and caring as actions of war”, building up an overview of how media coverage shows the changing gender roles in war upon closer inspection.
Lastly, the RGA from UN Women finds that women are playing a key role in the humanitarian response. However, issues of social development and gender equality tend to be sidelined, and women are not being included meaningfully in the planning and decision-making of humanitarian work. The centralization of power and increased role of the military has made it more difficult for women in Ukraine to exert influence in formal political and administrative decision-making processes, thus decreasing women’s overall participation.
As a man writing about women, I’ve been continuously doubting myself every step of the way. My concern is versatile and sensitive to how you react to this reading: Will this article be interpreted as yet another man imposing his notion of gender issues? In the end, I choose to continue because the cycle of unawareness of – or indifference towards – gender inequality needs to be broken, and I believe we all can take a first step by filling our own knowledge gaps. By including a gender perspective in the reading list, awareness and understanding of the issue is increased and better action can be taken in mitigating the disproportionate effects war has on a significant part of the population – women.
By: Daniel Perez
Photography: Matthew Hintz