More than five years after the armed conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine began, the engagement of women in the Ukrainian military has significantly increased in both combat and noncombat roles.

As of this year, it’s estimated that 57,000 women are serving in the Ukrainian military, with about 26,000 on active duty and more than 3,500 holding officer positions, according to the Mission of Ukraine to NATO and the New York Times. While many of the women are in contractual positions, others have also attained high ranks within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In 2018, for example, Liudmyla Shugaley was appointed the first ever female general in Ukrainian history.

In 2014, as Russian-led forces were invading Eastern Ukraine during the early stages of the Donbas war, women were not allowed to serve in combat roles. Since then, the Ukrainian government has attempted to increase the number of opportunities for women to serve their country and has additionally stepped up its initiatives to promote gender equality in the armed forces.

In June 2016, the Defense Ministry’s Order No. 292 allowed women to serve in combat units. Then, in September 2018, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill making women and men equal in the military and law enforcement agencies, opening the possibility for women to be in military positions previously only available for men. Then-president Petro Poroshenko supported the bill and signed it into law.

About 3% of women hold high rank in the Ukrainian military, although this percentage is likely to change as equality laws take effect and more Ukrainians approve of women serving their nation.

A few of the women who joined the ranks of the Ukrainian military were actually defectors from Russia, one of whom was high-ranking militant commander Svitlana Driuk. Another Russian national, 22-year-old Yulia Tolopa, who was profiled in the Daily Mail, came to Ukraine when the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution began because she did not believe Russian propaganda and wanted to seek the truth about the escalating conflict. Soon after, Tolopa volunteered for the Ukrainian army’s Aidar battalion and fought in various hotspots of the war, having been wounded twice. Similar to other defectors, Tolopa is on the wanted list of the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) and has three criminal charges leveled against her.

Despite heroic actions of women serving in the Ukrainian army on the front lines, some journalists and public activists have pointed out the existence of sexist Soviet-era attitudes toward women serving in the military. Moreover, in the past, women have spoken out against inequality and topics such as sexual harassment in the Ukrainian military, which was covered by prominent media outlets like the New York Times and Reuters.

One way that the role of women in the Ukrainian military is recognized has been through documentary films detailing the experiences of women in the war in Eastern Ukraine. For example, a documentary film called “Invisible Battalion,” originally started as 2016 sociology research project coordinated by Mariya Berlinska, a former military volunteer, sought to greatly raise awareness about women’s contributions at the front lines of the war in Donbas. The documentary, which premiered in 2018, was funded by the United Nations Women organization and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, and specifically detailed the under-publicized role of women in Ukraine’s armed forces.

Liudmyla Shugaley was appointed the first-ever female general in Ukrainian history in 2018. Credit: Radio Svoboda

Myroslav Dobroshynskyi, a student at Georgetown University, is interning at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.

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