Women Soldiers in Donbas
Marta Havryshko speaks about the women on Ukraine's front lines, their experience, and how they're seen at large.
Yesterday, Marta Havryshko told us about the history of women in the Ukrainian underground and the types of gender-based violence they were exposed to. Today she wants to describe the situation of women serving in Donbas today.

In 2015 there were 15,551 women in the army, and today there's over twenty five thousand. Ten percent of the forces overall. 2916 are officers, seventy of which are colonels. No generals yet. More than 7000 women are considered veterans of military operations (a status that comes with legal benefits). This is a complicated set of facts for the feminist movement – on the one hand, some activists are aiming for greater representation of women in uniform. On the other, some say that we, as feminists, need to be resisting war altogether. So they work against recruitment efforts to get women into the army.

About those recruitment campaigns – when Marta shows them to us, they're mostly posters of elegant women in uniform, flowers in their hair. Or flowers in the wind. Or flowers close to the guns. Or no guns at all. Even when women are being trained to kill (or to help those who kill), they're still expected to perform traditional embodiments of beauty and purity.
Like with the double-standards spoken about yesterday, women who choose careers in the army face some heavy stigmatization at home. They're only there to find a husband. Or a lover. Or freedom from one's family. Or just a fuck – things are grounded in a very present misogyny.

When Marta conducted interviews she found a variety of reasons women joined up: patriotic ideals, feelings of helplessness, a desire to make a military career, economic reasons, following relatives/friends/lovers, a desire to become free from oppression at home, or even just looking for an adventure.

When we start talking about economic reasons we should remember that, in 2014, salaries increased. And the country plummeted into financial crisis. For some women, entering the army was a way to get a higher salary and social benefits. Veterans get access to special medical care or other goodies, for example.

The desire for the government in recruiting women is just as diverse. There's the desire to show an expanded role of women in the country (a requirement for various kinds of European integration, both political and social). Then there's the social pressure for equality from within. Of course there's the war going on, thus requiring (wo)manpower. There's the idea that women have superior skills in discipline and motivation, managing tasks in an organized manner, and displaying knowledge /professionalism in the use of weapons. So there's that.

Still, the vast majority of women in the military occupy traditionally feminine positions: medical instructors, paramedics, psychologists, doctors, cooks, secretaries, logistics, hairdressers, etc. It was illegal for them to fight for a long time, but many fought unofficially. This became an issue because they wouldn't have access to legal benefits after their tours ended – they needed just as much support as returning men and it wasn't there. Eventually there was a change in legislation and women were allowed to become snipers, pioneers, gunners and vehicle commanders.

Integration of women into military life is another story. There are obviously the prejudice issues – positions might be open to women, but men are often hired instead. There's a lack of women leaders in the armed forces and no role models for how to advance and succeed. Daily life issues can also be specific – there was a big scandal involving how to deal with the need for women's underwear. In the end there were a bunch of old men in a room arguing with each other over panties. Then there are spaces and hygiene products to think about. Men can go about in the barracks in shorts but women are encouraged to wear tops and shorts because men, well, 'suffer' when they don't.

Schools are heavily militarized with both boys and girls doing a national defense course – it's gender separated, with the girls learning medical skills (no military training) and the boys getting military training (and no medical skills). This creates an imbalance and, in the case of the men, can lead to unnecessary deaths for the lack of basic medical knowledge. Girls are also prohibited from entering military lyceums (like cadet high schools) and have been banned from experimental courses for officers.

There is more visibility for women – they are allowed to fight on the front lines, but more than two-thirds of positions are still closed to women. This year's independence day parade included a unit of 120 female cadets, but there were so few women officers that they were lead by men.
Also, having a role seen as more masculine doesn't necessarily mean being treated like men. There was the case of a 23 year-old named Sabina Galytska who died while on medical duty in non-government controlled territories in East Ukraine. The death of female soldiers were seen as more demoralizing than male deaths and after that we saw an informal ban of women on the front lines. She was portrayed as an idealized type of militarized femininity: young, beautiful, not violent, killed while helping civilians. It encourages men to keep fighting. War isn't women's business. Men as protectors and women as protectees.

Marta says that when we constantly lump women and children together as objects of protection we end up taking away their agency. We see them as family members and not independent actors. The myth that every military women needs a man's protection is still there, and there are unfortunately still vestiges of the 'reward' should give a protecting man. As in, sexual availability.

She shows us pictures of the "Miss Military Fantasy" pageant, organized by the military forces. Women are with flowers in their hair, draped in coats that a man could have put on their shoulders. There's no hiding the 'fantasy' bit, she reminds us. And the sexualizing of the female soldier is present everywhere. Male recruitment posters show women soldiers in sexy pin-up poses. Projects like "If Not War" show the alternate lives soldiers could have lived – men are shown as pizza makers or artists, and women are often shown in sexy dresses.

BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD was the tagline when President Poroshenko spoke at a reception where women army members were recognized. His words? "A woman is the symbol of all the best in our lives: kindness and love, joy and warmth!" Nothing about their experience, their training or their education. Their beauty was what folks were interested in. All this organized by the ministry of defense, of course.

Then there's the issue of whether or not you present yourself as masculine or feminine while serving – too butch and you're a lesbian, too feminine and you might get harassed/underestimated. You have to strike a fine line between remaining feminine yet one of the boys.

And then there's the sexual violence in the army itself – you can imagine how much it gets talked about. Again, like in the interviews she conducted with older women, the speaker used euphemisms instead of sexual assault or violence. Were there unwanted comments or touching? Were you treated differently? Do you know facts about other women? This last one was important, because they might take the chance to talk about their own experience as if it was someone else.
Tangent: as hard as it is to get women to talk about histories of abuse, Marta says, getting men to open up while serving is next to impossible.
Sexual jokes are often a means of degradation, usually happening in public places or in front of others. People talk about it as a common phenomenon, not a big deal, boys will be boys. There are expectations, spoken or unspoken, of the landscape of men's sexual needs, and the place women occupy within that. Women our speaker spoke to talked about getting persistent propositions, or being given the look before the man walks away. In her own battalion she experiences less of this, but on the front lines battalions mingle and space opens for harassment.

Many women do eventually take up with a lover-protector – there are a number of benefits. Not getting hit on all the time. Maybe better access to facilities, beds and supplies. Depending on the lover there might be possibilities for advancement. Not that domestic violence between military couples doesn't happen, but many women don't want to disclose this. They're soldiers. Strong women. Branding themselves as anything but a victim. But then you get mistresses that are young. Like, 18 or 19. Or younger. Power imbalances exist.

Then there are cases of sexual assault, attempted assault and rape. This is a risk for women who become POWs – a captured man described Donbas fighters taking a soldier, keeping her for sexual services and raping her until she died. And that doesn't mean it doesn't happen on their side of the front line either.

There are plenty of reasons given for a culture of silence. Rape culture for one, with victim blaming, commanders turning a blind eye, putting the onus on the women (dressing right, not walking alone) and such. The there's military culture and a fierce loyalty to group values. Then the fear of reprisal, either from higher-ups or perpetrators. Of course political reasons factor in too: the war, being the big one, but also the maintenance of heroic narratives. And a lack of trust in the judicial system.

Coming back to regular life isn't free from consequences either – women are often stigmatized, called bad mothers, face challenges to veteran recognition, face limited access to medical care or gender-sensitive psychological help. Especially if they've undergone military sexual trauma.

There are steps towards creating gender equality from up top: a National Plan of Action was created on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (women, peace and security) and there have been changes in parliament. A women's lobby exists and there are different groups putting pressure on the public sphere. Changes are there but not too visible. Reforms happen but quite slow. There is a will to transform the Ukrainian army, it must be said, and to create opportunities for the integration of women.

So normally here's where you add conclusions, but our speaker lists a few research questions: What does military participation mean for the women involved, as well as for society? How do military women construct and perform feminine identities during service and daily practice? How do women deal with gender specific problems? Do they feel passionate enough about their social status? Does the presence of women affect prevention/resolutions of conflicts between combatants and civilians, as well as prevent men from abusing civilian women?

What she's left with is that many women do encounter empowerment in the military, and many encounter disappointment. Still lots of research to do.