Tetyana Chubar, an artillery shooter with the Ukrainian army’s 58th Brigade, first saw action against the Russians in March, 2022, when they approached the city of Chernihiv in the early stages of the war. The lance sergeant and her battalion fended them off with Gvozdika howitzers.
“We greeted the Russians with flowers,” she joked – Gvozdika means “carnation” in Russian and Ukrainian. “They were trying to reach Chernihiv on the way to Kyiv, and we were shelling their convoy.”
As a mother to two young sons, aged seven and four, the 24-year-old fighter is acutely aware of what’s at stake. “We are fighting for our children and our motherland,” she told The Globe and Mail.
Ukraine’s frontline fighters are mostly men. But women also play a pivotal role in the Ukrainian military, and more women have joined the armed forces since the war began almost a year ago. Their struggle to fight alongside their male comrades – effectively a fight for the right to kill and die – has been tough. Previously banned from serving on the front lines, Ukrainian servicewomen have had to overcome patriarchal stereotypes in their years-long battle for equal rights and recognition in the military.
L/Sgt. Chubar recalled her experience when she joined the Ukrainian army. “You’re a girl, it’s not your place to carry heavy shells,” one of her male comrades told her.
Andriana Susak also fought on the front lines of the war in Ukraine as a sergeant in the Special Operations Forces. A recipient of the Order of Courage in 2019 for her role in the liberation of Schastya in Luhansk, Sgt. Susak is currently undergoing treatment at a military hospital after being severely injured in a mine explosion in Kherson on Nov. 29, just weeks after the region was liberated from the Russians.
She too had to overcome gender barriers when she joined the Ukrainian army in 2014, shortly after the Maidan Revolution.
As a woman without prior military experience, she joined the army as a seamstress. Two months later, she took up arms and proved to be a good fighter, but her job title remained unchanged and she was not officially recognized as a combat fighter.
Back then, women were not allowed to serve in combat positions. They were only offered supporting roles as cooks, seamstresses, clerks or accountants. That changed in 2018 when Ukraine reformed its laws to allow women to take up arms, giving them the same status as men in the military.
It might not have happened if Sgt. Susak and her friends had not joined forces to push for equal treatment. The sergeant got together with drone operator Maria Berlinska and Kateryna Pryimak, a medical doctor with Hospitallers, a Ukrainian battalion of volunteer medics, to found the Women’s Veteran Movement in 2015. In their quest for equality, they discovered that several hundred women in the military were officially registered as service personnel even if they worked unofficially as soldiers.
“We never tired of discussing these problems at conferences with the leadership of the Ministry of Defence and the general staff,” Dr. Pryimak said.
With the assistance of lawyers, the Women’s Veteran Movement suggested amendments to laws that had barred women from combat positions. Those amendments passed in October, 2018, establishing equal opportunities for men and women to join the military, equal access to positions and military ranks and equal responsibilities in the performance of military service.
“Ukrainian women did not wait for doors to be open for them to serve in all capacities. They broke the doors down and have proven themselves as combat capable force multipliers,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Melanie Lake of the Canadian Armed Forces. She trained Ukrainian soldiers in 2021 as a commander of Operation UNIFIER, a training mission launched at the request of the Ukrainian government.
As a result of the reforms, more Ukrainian women joined the military. In 2016, they represented 8.5 per cent of military personnel in Ukraine, according to UN Women data. That climbed to 15.5 per cent in March, 2021, according to Ukraine’s Defence Ministry.
“Today, military women are equal and no less effective on the battlefield than men, and it is worth noting that they are no less popular,” Dr. Pryimak said.
Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion on Feb. 24, the total number of women in the Ukrainian army increased more than twofold – from 31,800 to more than 70,000 – but with the start of the draft in Ukraine, the size of the military increased from 250,000 to more than 700,000, according to Defence Ministry data, so women now account for just 10 per cent of military personnel.
Dr. Pryimak claims that having women in the army drove other reforms, including the adoption of new technology. For example, before 2018, there were no bulletproof jackets designed specifically for women. She also believes women partly deserve credit for securing more Western weaponry: Sgt. Susak flew to the United States to plead for military aid shortly before she was wounded.
As the war nears the one-year mark, L/Sgt. Chubar can’t see an end to the conflict. But like many of her female comrades, she’s certain Ukraine will emerge victorious and that women will play a big part in that triumph and in the country’s reconstruction.
Lt.-Col. Lake, the Canadian who helped train them, agrees: “Ukraine will have a significant number of women combat veterans at the end of this war, and they will be critical in defining the vision for postwar Ukraine.”