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Zelenskyy’s angels on the frontlines

WorldZelenskyy’s angels on the frontlines

Whether in the role of a soldier or a citizen trapped in a conflict zone, war takes a severe toll on the well-being of women.

According to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Defence, Hanna Maliar, by the summer of 2022 more than 50,000 women were employed by the armed forces, with approximately 38,000 serving in uniform. There are also approximately 8,000 women officers as of October 2022. The Ukrainian military is one of the most feminized armed forces in Europe. Women are now with units on the frontlines.
Until 2018, Ukrainian legislation did not allow women to be assigned to combat positions. This legal discrimination, 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. However, this discrimination has been done away with and women started serving in combat roles from 2016 and all military roles were opened to women in 2022. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of women who have voluntarily joined the Ukrainian military has surged. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as of 2021, Ukraine’s military had 196,600 soldiers, the second largest in the region, but dwarfed by Russia’s 900,000-strong military. Demand for new soldiers is very high, hence women are being welcomed to join the forces. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence has updated regulations to expand its national reserves by requiring more women to register with the Armed Forces. Now, women working in a wide range of professions, including librarians, journalists, musicians and psychologists, will be required to register for potential combat service. Recognition of women’s presence in the military was acknowledged when National Defenders’ Day was renamed in 2021 as the “Day of Men and Women Defenders of Ukraine”.
Many Ukrainian women have already distinguished themselves on the battlefield. Eugenia Emerald has become somewhat of an icon in Ukraine, fighting on the frontlines as a sniper—the only woman in her unit. She has been nicknamed as “punisher of Russians,” and the “Ukrainian Joan of Arc.”
In contrast, Russia has only an estimated 40,000 women—less than 1% of 900,000 soldiers, serving in the Russian Armed Forces. But in a fresh initiative, Russia began military conscription of women in December 2022, to mobilise additional forces for the war in Ukraine. On 12 July2022, Anastasia Savitskaya, a female Russian soldier, died during the invasion of Ukraine. Savitskaya, a corporal from Volgograd, was the first known female casualty among Russian troops since the beginning of the invasion on 24February2022.
In October 2022, the first all-female prisoner of war exchange took place between Russia and Ukraine, with 108 Ukrainian women being returned, including 37 who had fought in the Battle of Azovsta. Serving in the frontlines has its own hazards. Ukrainian women troops have suffered Russian sexual violence, rehabilitating women soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, including those who had been captives of Russian forces, and supporting the families of soldiers killed in the war, are fresh issues confronting the Ukrainian women soldiers.
Many Ukrainian women have distinguished themselves in the current conflict. In the opening days of the invasion, field medic Inna Derusova was said to have saved the lives of more than 10 soldiers during the Battle of Okhtyrka, before she was killed in a Russian artillery attack. On 12 March 2022, Derusova became the first woman to be posthumously awarded the highest national military title of Hero of Ukraine. During the invasion, LiubovPlaksiuk became the first woman to command an artillery division in the Ukrainian army. An unnamed female sniper attained the status of a national hero. She had 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 2022 invasion and has been compared to the World War II Ukrainian female sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
Another interesting development is the involvement of foreign women in the ranks of the Ukrainian forces. The government has declined to confirm the number of foreigners serving in Ukraine. There are reports that women, from the US, UK, Australia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Hungary, Israel, and Georgia have enlisted for fighting.
Russia is reportedly in the process of inducting “Female Tankers” in the Ukraine war. Russian female tank crews had distinguished themselves in the massive tank wars of World War II. Russia’s women tank crews like Maria Oktyabrskaya and Yekaterina Petlyuk from WWII have been lionized in its military history. Both recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union award, attained notable feats with their T-34 and T-60 tanks, respectively.
Whether in the role of a soldier or a citizen trapped in a conflict zone, war takes a more severe toll on the well-being of women, in the form of zero protection from sexual violence, lack of access to medical and hygiene supplies and psychosocial support.

Dr G. Shreekumar Menon IRS (Rtd), is former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics.

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