The participation of women in the prevention and resolution of military conflicts has been shown by numerous scientific studies to influence the achievement of sustainable peace and post-war recovery. The conclusion of a longer and more lasting peace, consideration of gender-specific aspects in reconstruction, the protection of the rights of vulnerable population groups, and the assurance of rights and freedoms are the result of active women’s participation.
The role of women in the military has evolved significantly over the years, challenging entrenched stereotypes and contributing to the transformation of defense structures. In modern armies around the world, women are serving not only as support personnel but also in combat roles, pushing the boundaries of what is traditionally considered a male-dominated domain. Women’s participation in combat roles has demonstrated that physical strength is not the sole determinant of effectiveness on the battlefield. Their presence has brought diverse skills, perspectives, and approaches to problem-solving. Women in combat units have shown remarkable adaptability, leadership, and tactical skills, debunking the myth that these attributes are inherently gender-specific.
Moreover, the inclusion of women in the armed forces contributes to a more humane approach to warfare. It highlights the importance of diversity in decision-making and conflict resolution, which is critical to prevent the escalation of violence and to find peaceful solutions to conflicts. Women’s presence in the military fosters a culture of inclusivity, empathy, and understanding, which can lead to more responsible and ethical actions on the battlefield.
Ukraine is currently at a pivotal juncture that has the potential to bring about transformative changes not just within the military but also in the defense and security sectors, and society as a whole. With over 60,000 women enlisted in the Armed Forces and more than 130,000 serving in the defense and security sector, these women have demonstrated unwavering commitment, professionalism, and resilience in safeguarding the country’s sovereignty. While they’ve shown themselves to be highly dedicated and prepared to serve on par with their male counterparts, the critical question remains: do they receive equal treatment, and does genuine equality exist within the Ukrainian military?
In an exclusive interview with Irene Fellin, NATO Secretary General’s Advisor on Women, Peace and Security, conducted for the W2U platform, we delve into a thorough exploration of how women’s engagement in the armed forces is not solely transforming the military arena but also compelling us to rethink our broader understandings of gender equality and humanitarian principles. This discussion goes beyond mere statistics, emphasizing the need for a deeper analysis of the multifaceted dimensions of equality and the crucial measures required to nurture this transformation.
Please share your main conclusions about the participation of Ukrainian women in the war. What changes do you see today, and what long-term results could this lead to?
Ukrainian women have actively participated in various wars throughout history, including World War II and since 2014 in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. They have served in combat roles, provided medical assistance, and contributed to the war effort in various capacities. Since 2018 women have gradually become eligible for all military positions and ranks, with the same duties and opportunities as their male colleagues, which represented a major change in the Armed Forces. This recognition, and the need felt by Ukrainian women to contribute to the war effort, led to a sharp rise in their number in the Armed Forces.
Increased female participation in the military will over time contribute to achieve greater gender equality and women’s empowerment within Ukrainian society.
It will contribute in challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes, demonstrating that women are equally capable of serving in combat roles and contributing to national defense, as men are.
Mass female conscription can also foster cultural and societal shifts in perceptions of women’s roles in society, promoting a more inclusive and equal society where women will be seen as capable contributors to national security. This can help address issues such as gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and encourage career advancement for women in the defence and security sectors.
With a larger pool of women serving in the military, there is also potential for a broader range of skills and perspectives. This diversity can enhance the overall capabilities and effectiveness of the armed forces, as diverse perspectives lead to more innovative and comprehensive problem-solving.
What can strengthen the positive effects of these changes? What needs to be addressed by the government, businesses, and civil sector?
Promoting gender equality within the Ukrainian Armed Forces will require a multi-faceted approach, which includes increasing the recruitment of women, but is not limited to it. In this respect, Ukraine has made enormous progress in rising equality levels between women and men in the military, including by increasing women’s access to military occupations and officer positions, by addressing gender stereotypes and by including the participation of women in local dialogue initiatives in Eastern Ukraine.
During my visit to Kyiv in May this year, I was pleased to hear from my Ukrainian interlocutors at the Ministry of Defence, that all legal barriers that held women back from volunteering for all combat roles had been lifted. The positive impact of such reforms is reflected in the number of women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces today – approximately 20%. This is an impressive percentage, even by Allied standards, and something for which I can only commend Ukraine. Out of the over 60 000 women serving in the Ministry of Defence, around 43 000 are in uniform and an estimated 5 000 are on the frontlines.
Having women present and occupying meaningful roles within the security and defence sector, including in high ranking and leadership positions, is essential for promoting a leadership model that will put gender equality at the center, ensuring the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and improving the effectiveness and responsiveness of security and defence efforts.
But to effectively implement gender equality within the Ukrainian Army, it is not enough to have women present.
It is also necessary to develop gender-sensitive policies that promote equal opportunities for both women and men. For example, policies related to recruitment, career advancement as well as gender-sensitive training and education for all personnel.
I can therefore only welcome the fact that training on the Women, Peace and Security agenda and on gender equality is provided to Government officials and professionals in the security and defence sector in Ukraine.
Another practical step to achieve gender equality in the Ukrainian Army is to ensure that military installations, facilities and equipment are adequate for the needs of both women and men.
Being blind to their specific and differentiated needs would mean effectively tending to only part of the Armed Forces.
It was therefore very informative to hear from Ukrainian officials that they were working on a new battle dress uniform tailored for women, as well as exploring ways to lighten the body-armour, as it has been found to be the cause of spinal injuries for women. Providing such personal protective equipment and uniforms tailored to women is important to avoid unnecessary and predictable side effects. I know that in this field Ukrainian civil society and volunteers are also playing a key role, which I find impressive. It is worth mentioning that in August this year the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence approved the first summer uniform set for the armed forces’ female personnel, which was designed and tested by a Kyiv based NGO called Arm Women Now. This also includes access to gender-sensitive healthcare, appropriate facilities, and childcare services. Promoting a shift in societal attitudes towards women’s participation in the military can help overcome gender biases and stereotypes. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns, media representation, and promoting positive female role models.
Over 60,000 women officially serve in the Ukrainian army, indicating a trend of a mass female conscription. What rapid and long-term changes can this lead to?
The impressive numbers of women serving in the Ukrainian Army will lead to several immediate and long-term changes.
The immediate ones will relate to education, training and international collaboration. Providing comprehensive education and training programs that equip women with the necessary skills and knowledge for active participation in the military can enhance their effectiveness on the battlefield.
This includes combat training, medical training, and leadership development. Engaging in international collaborations and partnerships, such as the partnership with NATO, to share best practices and experiences in promoting women’s participation in the military can provide valuable insights and support.
In fact, the Ukrainian army represents nowadays a source of extensive operational knowledge from which NATO and its Allies can draw from.
After the war, it will be important that these changes be sustained and fully integrated. While Russia’s aggression continues, planning for recovery in Ukraine has already begun. To ensure that this reconstruction is sustainable, inclusive efforts should be made to guarantee women’s full participation in the post-war recovery.