This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A pile of boxes filled with body bags welcomed visitors to the headquarters of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement, Ukraine’s biggest female soldiers’ organization, on a recent afternoon.
The empty bags were ready to be shipped to Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region where deadly fighting has raged for months, said Olena Kharchenko, an employee in charge of the dispatch. “It’s what we do almost every day,” she added.
“We set up our movement to defend the rights of female soldiers and veterans,” said Kateryna Priymak, the organization’s deputy head, “but Russia’s full-scale invasion forced us to focus on the maximally efficient support for the army.”
The long corridor running through the headquarters leads to several storage rooms with military and humanitarian supplies, a drone-production workshop, a room for weaving protective nets, and a large sewing room where volunteers design military uniforms for women.
Almost all of this goes to the military, primarily to female personnel, Kharchenko said.
With about 50,000 servicewomen — including some 5,000 on the front lines, according to Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Malyar — the Ukrainian military is one of the most feminized armed forces in Europe.
‘A Job Called Defending The Fatherland’
More than 600 kilometers east of Kyiv, in the village of Yatskivka in the Donetsk region — part of the Donbas — Lieutenant Lyubov Plaksyuk was getting ready for another battle.
Plaksyuk — the first woman to head an artillery unit of the Ukrainian Army — has been fighting in the war since the morning of February 24, when her unit came under what she described as “nonstop total shelling” from the Russian side in the first hours of the full-scale invasion.
During a cigarette break from the paperwork to prepare to take her artillery unit back to the front line, Plaksyuk told RFE/RL that the situation around Kreminna — a key logistical hub that Ukrainians have been trying to recapture since their successful counteroffensive in the neighboring Kharkiv region — is “under control but quite difficult.”
“It is hard to fight against an opponent who is superior both in numbers and armaments and does not care what he shoots at,” she said by telephone.
Plaksyuk, who took part in the liberation of Lyman, a key Donetsk region railway hub, and other settlements this autumn, is now responsible for artillery reconnaissance. “We send out little birds that fly a little farther than we can see, look for those who need a little present, and we destroy the enemies,” she said with a laugh, describing her everyday work with drones and artillery.
Plaksyuk was in her 20s when she left a career as a history teacher more than seven years ago, after the school she worked in was closed, and decided to pursue her “dream” of joining the military.
“There is a job called defending the fatherland, and this is what I do now,” she said.
Plaksyuk is one of only two women in her unit. Her gender “does not play a role,” she said, adding that her male subordinates “fully respect” her because of her professionalism.
“I am where I am because I strove for it,” she said.
‘Life Had Not Prepared Me For It’
More than 1,100 kilometers to the west, in the town of Ustyluh on Ukraine’s border with Poland, 26-year-old border guard Alina Panina carries out customs checks with the help of a spaniel sniffer dog.
Panina has always been interested in working with dogs and had wanted a career in uniform since childhood, she told RFE/RL, but — unlike Plaksyuk — she never expected to find herself in the epicenter of the war. “Life had not prepared me for what was about happen,” she said.
When Russia launched the full-scale invasion in February, she was in Mariupol, an Azov Sea city in the Donbas that had long been a target for Russia, working at the port checking cargo for contraband.
Shortly after the first Russian missiles hit Mariupol, she was ordered to join forces defending the city’s smaller steel plant, known as Azovmash, and then moved on to the besieged Azovstal steelworks. As the Russian troops were leveling the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance, she was supporting Ukrainian fighters, cooking for them, and caring for the wounded along with other women.
“They said the sight of us gave them hope,” she recalled.
In mid-May, Panina was among hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered to an uncertain fate after weeks of hiding in bunkers and tunnels at Azovstal. She was then held captive for four and a half months in the notorious Russian-controlled Olenivka prison in Donetsk, where dozens of captives were killed in a deadly strike in July.
There, she lived in “inhuman” conditions with 28 other women in a cell designed for four. But the hardest part was “being cut off from the outside world,” she said.
Panina was released with more than 100 Ukrainian women in a large prisoner swap in October. After many days of a blindfolded journey back home through Russian territory and Crimea. Her husband, also a soldier, with whom she lived in Mariupol, remains in Russian captivity.
“I have become tougher and stronger than I ever thought possible,” Panina said, “but I learned that men cry, too, when they watch their comrades die every day.”
After a short period of rest and rehabilitation, she said, she decided to return to military service to do “whatever I can to bring victory closer.”
Back in the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement headquarters in Kyiv, two soldiers — a man and a woman nicknamed Monk and Bambi — arrived from the war zone to collect supplies.
Among other things, they received New Year’s gifts for female soldiers donated by a partner organization — items that included painkillers, medicines, frostbite creams, wet tissues, condoms, and bandages. Kharchenko added a hand-knit female soldier doll to each bag.
“Ukraine is moving forward at a superfast pace. We have proven that we could withstand the Russian invasion, but all this is not enough to ensure our imminent victory,” Priymak said, sitting back in an armchair in the middle of the bustling office.
Now a manager at an organization with some 500 members, Priymak was 21 years old when Russia stoked tensions that started the war in the Donbas in 2014, after the Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovuych from power.
Back then she enlisted with a volunteer medical battalion and spent 11 months serving as a paramedic on the front line.
“Age and gender play no role in the motivation to fight,” she said. “After Euromaidan my social circle strongly felt that if we don’t take up the fight, we will lose the right to freedom of conscience, to self-identification, and to shape the place we live in.”
But the reality was that when the Donbas war broke out the Ukrainian Army — which was haunted by corruption, a lack of basic supplies, and many other problems — was often openly hostile to women, she said.
“We kept on hearing phrases like, ‘War is not a place for women,’ ‘You’d better stay at home with children,’ or, ‘When a woman dies, everybody’s morale is lost’ all the time,” she recalled.
Until 2018, Ukrainian legislation did not allow women to be assigned to combat positions, said sociologist Anna Kvit, who has been researching Ukrainian female soldiers since 2015 along with colleagues from the Invisible Battalion advocacy project.
As a result, she told RFE/RL, the volunteer fighters were enlisted as cooks, cleaners, or accountants, even if they were taking part in hostilities as snipers, grenade launcher operators, reconnaissance soldiers, or artillerists.
This legal discrimination, Kvit said, deprived most women who served in the war in the Donbas of access to social or military benefits, military awards, and career opportunities in the armed forces.
Now, with the legal discrimination gone mainly due to advocacy and pressure from civil society, multiple problems remain, and new ones emerge.
The fact that the Ukrainian military began issuing uniforms for women after almost nine years of war is “a sign of progress” but also shows that “even basic infrastructure is not prepared for women,” Kvit said.
Priymak — who spent two weeks serving as a medic during Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the Kherson region — said that Ukrainian female soldiers entered the spotlight after “years of being invisible,” but “the intensity of warfare reinforces archaic primordial instincts, and that affects women’s rights.”
“War is a difficult time for criticism, but there is more and more to criticize as it grinds on,” she said.
‘All This Torture’
According to Kvit, despite gradual changes in the status of women in the military, sexual harassment is not well defined in Ukrainian law, there are still no relevant procedures to deal with it in the army, and it remains underreported.
Oksana Hryhoryeva, gender adviser to the commander of the Ukrainian military’s Land Forces, told RFE/RL that, since the beginning of Russian full-scale invasion, she received reports of only two cases of harassment or gender discrimination. But she claimed this is an accurate reflection of reality.
“There is no harassment on the front line,” she said, adding that “women in the army make men reveal their better selves.”
Most of her efforts, Hryhoryeva said, are connected to dealing with the consequences of Russian sexual violence in areas recaptured by Ukraine, rehabilitating soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, including those who had been captives of Russian, and supporting the families of soldiers killed in the war.
“The belief that the army is no place for women is a relic of the Soviet mentality,” Hryhoryeva said, adding that women are a “great resource for all the levels of the military.”
But Priymak believes that if it weren’t for Ukrainian women who “fought for their rights as they fought for their country,” the Ukraine’s military would have far fewer women and would not be what it is today.
“Perhaps we need to go through all this torture to continue to develop as a society,” she said. “Otherwise, we will cease to exist as a nation and state.”