Women in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

roles of women during the invasion

Encyclopedia from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Ukrainian police officer with two women in Kyiv on 16 March 2022

Women are active in a variety of roles in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February 2022 and have been affected in a number of ways.[1][2][3][4][5]

First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has stated that "Our resistance, as our future victory, has taken on a particularly feminine face," and has praised Ukraine's women for serving in the military, raising their children in wartime, and providing essential services.[6]


Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, there has a significant increase in women's roles in the Ukrainian military, including several positions that had been reserved for men only being opened up to women and the total number of women serving more than doubling.[7] However, discrimination and harassment remain significant problems within the Ukrainian military.[8][9][10] Ukrainian women civilians have also faced significant dangers and issues during the war.[11][12][13] Roma women have faced particular levels of discrimination, often being refused internally displaced status and facing intense racism.[14]

Globally woman and girls also face a heightened risk due to displacement and breakdowns of the normal protections in society, and sexual violence has been used as a tactic in war, terror, torture and political repression by many. Per UN Women more than 70% of women experience gender-based violence during a crisis situation, and the Lancet Medical Journal published works found that women and girls affected by armed conflict are exposed to an increased amount of traumatic experiences.[15]

War crimes and violence against women

A woman with facial injuries after Russian forces attacked an apartment building in Kyiv

Sexual violence has been seen in Ukraine and other conflicts by Russian and Russian lead forces previously. According to the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict data set there have been claims against Russian troops of sexual violence in three of seven years of conflict since 2014 in eastern Ukraine, with a majority of reports occurring from individuals in detention. The US State Departments 2020 Country Report for Human Rights Practices in Ukraine documents beatings and electric shock in the genital area, rape, threats of rape, forced nudity, and threats of rape against family members, by Russian lead forces as means of torture and punishment. Amnesty International also reported cases of gang rape and rape of adults and children of both genders in by Russia forces in Chechnya in the early 2000s.[16][17]

Women have been targeted with sexual violence in the invasion.[18][19][20] Ukrainian MPs Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko stated that most elderly women in Russian-occupied cities "were executed after being raped or took their own lives."[21] Due to the limited communication with areas under Russian control or contested areas under heavy fighting the exact number of sexual violence cases have been difficult to track or respond to in a timely manner. The president of La Strada Ukraine; a charity supporting survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault, stated their emergency hotline has had several calls for assistance from women and girls but due to the fighting the charity cannot help them physically. Reports of gang rapes, assaults at gunpoint and sexual violence in front of children have all been reported to Ukrainian and international authorities and law enforcement and media personnel as Russian troops have withdrawn.[22] Female villagers were warned to make themselves look unattractive by removing jewellery, donning headscarves and dress as old women.[23]

After the first official investigation into claims of sexual violence by Russia soldiers in the invasion started, The Times of London, published an account on 28 March 2022 of a woman who claimed that her husband was killed and she was raped in the village of Shevchenkove by Russian soldiers on 9 March 2022.[24] The Mariupol city council has claimed that Russian forces have forcibly deported several thousand Ukrainian women and children from the city to Russia.[25] The Mariupol hospital airstrike targeted a maternity ward in Mariupol.[26] Sexual violence between the Ukrainian population has also been reported with a man from the Ukrainian territorial defense services arrested in Vinnytsia after he reportedly attempted to rape a female teacher who was trying to flee the area.[22]

When the city of Ivano-Frankivsk began offering firearm lessons to civilians in March 2022, thousands of women signed up, motivated by self-defense in response to allegations of sexual violence.[27]

Active participants in the conflict

In the military

A significant number of women have volunteered to fight for the Ukrainian forces in response to the invasion.[28][29][30][31] Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko of Georgia State University have stated that "Ukrainian women have historically enjoyed independence not common in other parts of the globe" and that "Ukraine offers a unique insight into the roles that women can play in defending the nation and as leaders in their own right."[32] Ukrainian woman have served in the armed forces since World War I, but were not officially recognized as combat veterans with full military pensions until the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.[33] Based on published statistics about 22.8% of Ukraine's military were female and about 15.5% were registered as servicemen.[34]

In the week prior to the invasion, the separatist regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic banned men aged between 18 and 55 from leaving the regions to ensure that they remain available for conscription.[35] Following the invasion, the Ukrainian government enforced a similar order on men aged between 18 and 60.[36] Those laws have provoked significant debate, in part due to their gendered nature.[37][38] However, due to the initial influx of volunteers many have not been called up for conscription and women volunteers have been turned away. One woman who spoke to reporters said she had been told; "Ok, you will be in line. But now we have too many people", causing many women who wish to serve to stay and work in supportive means.[33] Additional Ukrainian women have also returned to the country to enlist in armed forces or help others evacuate, after either leaving it as a refugee or living abroad.[39]

At least one woman in the military has become a national hero – an unnamed female sniper who reportedly joined the Ukrainian Marines in 2017 and fought in Donetsk and Luhansk under the call sign Charcoal, before retiring in January 2021. She reportedly re-enlisted just before the 2021 invasion and has been compared to the World War II Ukrainian female sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko.[40]

As journalists

Women have played significant role as journalists in the invasion.[41][42] Lynn Elber of the Associated Press has stated that the "presence of women reporting in Ukraine is set against a backdrop of traditional roles and expectations" but that presence has "changed the nature of war reporting. They cover the tactics of war, but give equal measure to its toll."[43] Women journalists have faced particular difficulties during the invasion. Foreign Policy that women have make up around 23% of "total experts, protagonists, or sources" in news articles about the invasion.[44] Additional coverage and discussion about the war has been seen by female Ukrainian journalists living abroad, where they work to combat Russian propaganda and work help bring aid and awareness to the situation.[45]

As of 23 March, two of the five journalists confirmed to have been killed in the invasion were women: Oleksandra Kuvshynova and Oksana Baulina.[46][47] Foreign Policy further quoted Ukrainian Radio journalist Iryna Slavinska as saying upon Kuvshynova's death, "Unfortunately, this happens a lot to Ukrainian women journalists in war," who she said are forced to choose between staying in the conflict area to report or fleeing with their families, in addition to facing the threat of sexual violence.[44]


Girl in pink coat and pink hat with train in the background
A young refugee in Przemyśl train station in Poland

Impact on reproductive healthcare

Reproductive healthcare, including pregnancy healthcare, in Ukraine has faced significant disruption due to the invasion.[48] The International Federation for Human Rights has stated that the invasion "is having a severe impact on women, girls and marginalized populations in Ukraine and is jeopardizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights."[49] Caroline Nokes, Chair of the British Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee, has stated that "women escaping the war have lost access to crucial healthcare. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are often unable to access vital prenatal and postnatal services or find places to give birth safely."[50] Many prenatal clinics in both Kharkiv and Lviv have reported a rise in rate of preterm births, with the rates double or tripling due to increase stress and medical issues that have resulted from the invasion. A clinic in Kharkiv, reportedly has premature births accounting for 50% of all deliveries, three times the normal rate which had already been high as they had provided care for women from Donetsk and Luhansk.[51]

Commercial surrogacy is legal in Ukraine with an estimated 2,000 children are born each year for foreign parents with many seeing it as a lucrative opportunity as the pay could be more then the countries average annual salary.[52] However, due to the war surrogate mothers in Ukraine have reported significant issues caused by the invasion.[53][54][55] Some surrogacy companies have built bunkers for the mothers and their children, while others allowed the mothers to flee the country but ordered them back for their delivery or threatened the mothers with up to 15 years in prison if they fled Ukraine. Additional issues are faced when foreign parents come to pick up their children, due to lack of documentation causing many surrogate born children being unable to leave the country legally.[52]

LGBT women

Transgender and non-binary people have faced discrimination in Ukraine prior to and as a result of the war.[56][57] Over the years prior to the invasion there has been an spike in homophobic and transphobic hate crimes in the country, with 80 documented cases in 2020. A report on these cases from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association indicates that in 27% of cases polices reporting to the scene did nothing and in 38% of cases police did not record a crime or open an investigation.[58]

For a large majority of trans individuals in Ukraine, their assigned at birth gender is documented on their official IDs causing trans women to be held back in accordance with President Zelenskys mandate for all men to fight and trans men having to get a "white ticket" exempting them from the military.[58] Trans women attempted to leave Ukraine have faced being forced to undress and being subjected to physical examinations by guards at checkpoints and being blocked from leaving as refugees.[59][60] Transgender people have in some cases been advised not to carry ID in order to avoid targeted harassment while attempting to leave Ukraine. Some trans people who are stuck in Ukraine have reported that the increase in available weapons due to the invasion has led to an increase in violent threats against trans people.[61][62][63]

A partnership between Kyiv Pride and Gay Alliance Ukraine, created a shelter for members of the LGBTQ community to stay and stock up before continuing their flight out of the country A similar effort was seen by the LGBTQ and women's organization Insight, which created two shelters near the Polish and Romanian borders.[58] Concerns have also been raised about the destinations for many fleeing the Russian invasion as Poland and Hungary have both been condemned by the European Union for having anti-gay laws. The laws have made some activists with Warsaw and Budapest Prides, raise concerns that the LGBT refugees would have to continue to other Western European countries to be protected by the law.[64]


Refugee civilians in Mariupol, 12 March 2022

Women have made up a large majority[65][66] of the refugees fleeing the war.[67] Men aged between 18 and 60 are forbidden to leave the country.[66] Julia Gris, the only woman rabbi in Ukraine, has been forced to leave the country due to the invasion.[68] Unaccompanied children also made up a portion of the refugees and patchy registration at border regions, which got better as the war progressed, meant that many children's whereabouts are undocumented or untraceable. Attempts to lessen concerns and violence for refugees have been implemented by making volunteers show identification, document their actions and wear high visibility vests.[69] International efforts have also been seen, such as the Israeli "With You - Wherever You Go" task force to help and support women and children refugees, with social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and medical professions who speak Ukrainian sent to boarder crossings.[70] Additionally grass root movements such as Women Take the Wheel (Kobiety Za Kółko) were created to transport refugees into mainland Poland. The organization is compromised entirely of women drivers for women and children refugees, with about 200 active drivers, and began after a Polish woman volunteer saw the distrust of refugees to male volunteer drivers when she arrived at the Dorohusk crossing.[71]

Women refugees have also faced discrimination and violence once outside of Ukraine. On 22 March, Amnesty International stated that "emerging reports of gender-based violence against women and girls are of particular concern" in terms of protections of refugees in Poland and that some Polish human rights groups have "observed men in Lublin aggressively approaching women coming from Ukraine and offering them transport and accommodation."[72] The UN Refugee program has also raised concerns about the United Kingdoms Homes for Ukraine program which does not limit hosts for refugees, and reported that it would be better for women and women with children would not be matched with single male hosts.[73] The concerns were raised after women participating in the schemes Facebook groups set up to connect refugees with participants, reported being called derogatory comments and abuse along with explicit images from men in the group.[74] One refugee who crossed with her children into Romania, told reporters that fake volunteers attempted to force her to travel with them to Switzerland with other women and refused to show identification.[69] Anti-abortion movements in Poland have also targeted refugees with propaganda and disinformation.[75]


The disruption in the education system leaves to mothers the task of homeschooling. Roma women are especially affected since their education was already not encouraged.[66] The education of about 5.5 million children was affected by the war with about 22 schools being attacked daily, per the Save the Children organization and official Ukrainian figures. In early April 2022, it was reported that at least 869 education facilities or about 6% of schools in Ukraine had been damaged with about 83 completely destroyed and other classroom being used as emergency accommodation. Compounding the issue was a lack of teachers that are majorly female and had been a concern prior to the invasion.[76]

India's permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador T. S. Tirumurti announced that India would be working to minimalize the impact of the conflict on the education of students on 10 April 2022. While the Ambassador highlighted the Indian college students who had been studying in Ukraine, he did mention the conflict would exacerbate challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and that more than 900 educational facilities and schools have been destroyed or damaged in Ukraine.[77]

In the Russian anti-war movement

Protest against the invasion of Ukraine (Moscow, 24 February 2022)

Women have played a significant role in the 2022 anti-war protests in Russia.[78][79][80][81][82][83] Meduza journalist Alexey Kovalyov has stated that "it’s mostly women who are facing real violence and serious prison time."[84]

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance was launched in Russia following the invasion, saying in their manifesto that "feminism as a political force cannot be on the side of a war of aggression and military occupation," that "war exacerbates gender inequality and sets back gains for human rights by many years. War brings with it not only the violence of bombs and bullets but also sexual violence," and that the invasion was being " fought under the banner of the “traditional values” declared by government ideologues [which] include gender inequality, exploitation of women, and state repression against those whose way of life, self-identification, and actions do not conform with narrow patriarchal norms."[85] The group led the protests on International Women's Day on March 8, protesting at monuments to the Great Patriotic War in cities across Russia.[86] The Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia has also spoken out against the war.[87][88][89]

Women and gender minorities protesting against the war have been targeted with significant brutality by Russian police, including threats of sexual violence.[90][91]


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