Female members of the Ukrainian Army’s 128th Carpathian Mountain Assault Brigade train in different combat scenarios as they prepare to join the frontline in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on July 15, 2023. 

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War, the military, combat, the frontline — all traditionally seen as a “man’s world” despite the many official and unofficial contributions that women have made both on the battlefield and on the home front in conflicts over the centuries.

Women’s role in warfare is rapidly changing in the modern age, however, and particularly in Ukraine where Russia’s invasion has prompted thousands of women to sign up and serve in the military, both on the frontline and in non-combat roles.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said last October that almost 43,000 women are currently serving in the military, a 40% increase since 2021, before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Female combatants in Ukraine say the war is changing societal perceptions of a woman’s strength, capabilities and worth, but change doesn’t happen overnight. Sexism, prejudice and discrimination are still rife, they told CNBC, and they feel they constantly have to prove themselves to their male colleagues.

Female members of the Ukrainian Army’s 128th Carpathian Mountain Assault Brigade train in July, 2023. 

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“On the battlefield, due to the fact that you are a woman, you must prove your ability to perform a combat mission with quality. On the other hand, if you’re a man, you don’t need to prove anything,” noted Iryna Tsybukh, a combat medic in the Hospitallers Medical Battalion for the last four years.

“This discrimination is manifested in the doubt of the commander who does not want to give you difficult tasks because he is afraid that you will not fulfil them because you are a woman,” she said in emailed comments to CNBC.

Tsybukh described her current role as a “crew chief in a very female-friendly unit,” saying she felt safe and respected by her peers because of the high-quality of her work.

“But my example does not affect their general prejudice against women. They consider me and people like me to be an exception to the rule and they would [rather] choose a man, not a woman, for the task.”

A decade of change

Female members of the Ukrainian Army’s 128th Carpathian Mountain Assault Brigade train.

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In the past, women in the armed forces had also been restricted to certain roles such as logistics, communications or medical roles, although that has changed in the last few years. In 2016, Ukraine’s defense ministry opened more combat positions for women and this was expanded in 2018, allowing women to officially serve in roles such as as infantry commanders, armored vehicle gunners and snipers.

Former journalist and current sniper Olena Bilozerska told CNBC that she recognized that some very physical roles were better suited to men, but that didn’t preclude women from performing a variety of military roles well.

“Of course, I’m not treated exactly as men are, but this is impossible — at least, because an average woman will always be physically weaker than an average man, and this has to be taken into account,” she said via email.

“At anything else, military women are no different from men … [and] the more women there are who perform their duties well, the better the attitude towards military women becomes. Of course, the attitude cannot change fundamentally in one day, or even a year, it is a long process,” she said.

Bilozerska has been able to see that process take place, having first joined a volunteer battalion in 2014 when Russian proxies were advancing in Ukraine’s east.

She became prominent in the movement calling for women to be able to take up combat roles in Ukraine’s armed forces, a move that came into force in 2016 and to have their previous service recognized. Bilozeska became an officer in 2018 and was then the commander of an artillery platoon for two years in Donetsk before “retiring” in 2020.

Olena Bilozerska, a Ukrainian journalist who became a sniper in 2014. Bilozerska has raised the profile of female soldiers in Ukraine and has become a target of Russian propaganda, falsely declared dead a number of times.

Olena Bilozerska

A week before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, she said she, her husband and other “brothers in arms” signed up at a military unit in anticipation of the invasion.

Since 2022, she has returned to her role as a sniper and has achieved a legendary status in Ukraine for her abilities and courage, so much so that Russia has tried to spread fake news about her “elimination.” It’s something she’s positive about, however, saying it means the Russians haven’t forgotten about her: “That means they are afraid,” she says.

Nonetheless, Bilozerska has her own experience of discrimination among her peers, noting “every woman in the military has her own story, even several, about how she was not allowed somewhere because she was a woman, or that somebody was allowed to make offensive remarks.”

Ukrainian female soldiers are seen before heading to the frontline as Ukrainian displaced civilians continue to swarm around the train station to flee due to ongoing Russian attacks, in Lviv, Ukraine on March 24, 2022.

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Bilozerska recalled one of her own experiences when she was in a truck with eight other male colleagues, including a commander. The truck got stuck in Ukraine’s infamous mud and the men got out to push the vehicle.

“I didn’t go as I considered it unnecessary because there were more than enough men and I wouldn’t even have a place near that truck (although when there were only three of us in a similar situation, then I pushed together with the men). The guys quickly pushed the truck out, turned back, and the commander tells me: ‘That’s why I’m against women being accepted into the army. Because we have nine fighters on paper, but only eight in reality’,” she said.

“Of course, the longer the war lasts, the more women are on the front lines, the better the treatment becomes,” Bilozerska noted, “although there are still military men who are convinced that if there are no girls at the front lines in their unit, then there are no girls at the front lines at all.”

Reinvention

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeatedly praises the efforts of the country’s female defenders; last International Woman’s Day thanking “all the women who work, teach, study, rescue, heal, fight — fight for Ukraine.” Ukraine’s defense ministry is also keen to highlight efforts it has made to level the playing field for female recruits.

Last October, it said it had “canceled all restrictions on the access of servicewomen to all positions” in the army, noting that “earlier, women could serve mainly in positions of medical specialties, communications workers, accountants, clerks and cooks. Now, a woman in the army can be a driver, grenade launcher, deputy commander of a reconnaissance group, commander of BMP [a Soviet-era infantry fighting vehicle], repairman, machine gunner, sniper, etc,” the ministry said on Telegram.

Previously, a contract for military service was signed by women aged 18 to 40, while men did not face the same restriction. “Now, from 18 to 60 years of age, representatives of both sexes can become contractors,” the ministry noted.

It’s a far cry from 2021 when Ukrainian female troops were photographed practising for a parade wearing high heels with onlookers calling the policy sexist and idiotic.

While positive changes are being made to encourage equality in the forces, there is still some way to go with reports of sexual harassment as well as discrimination, although the ministry has vowed to root “unacceptable” behavior out.

Women in military uniforms pose for a photo during the presentation on February 1, 2024 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine has held a presentation of military uniforms for women with 50,000 sets produced in Ukraine.

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One area of progress has been propeled by women, for women, and that’s in the area of uniforms, protective gear and essential supplies. Kseniia Drahaniuk was a blogger before the war but she now runs a not-for-profit that has developed and made properly-sized army clothing and equipment for women.

“[Before] women improvised various solutions, sewing their own uniforms with local tailors, altering men’s clothing to fit, or using belts for adjustments. However, dealing with these challenges during full-scale war significantly impacted their service productivity. These were not tasks military servicewomen should have been burdened with,” she told CNBC.

She says her organization, Zemlyachky, has now fulfilled 15,000 individual requests for uniforms, body armor, helmets, properly-sized footwear, undergarments, and other necessities. It has also provided psychological support and rehabilitation to female soldiers. For some, it has even offered free weddings as soldiers try to continue to have a “normal life.”

For many, war has forced a complete change of identity with former lives barely recognizable to their service on the frontline now. Yuliia, who preferred not to give her last name for security reasons, was a model before the war but volunteered soon after Russia’s invasion and is now serving as a paramedic in an assault regiment in the war’s hotspot, Donetsk.

Yuliia, whose call sign in “Diia” or “Action” (call signs are used to quickly identify colleagues and speed up communication in the army) is part of a medical crew evacuating wounded fighters, civilians and even animals. “I also meet the bodies of fallen soldiers, this is the most difficult line of work,” she told CNBC over email.

Former model Yuliia has served as a paramedic in an assault regiment in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Yuliia

On the frontlines now in a region experiencing extreme destruction and attritional battles with hundreds of troops estimated to be dying on both sides, on a daily basis, Yuliaa’s life and work now couldn’t be further from her previous life when she worked as a model.

On the catwalk, “a lot depends on you, but definitely not someone’s life,” she said, noting that now she sees photos or videos on social networks that were taken before the war and thinks “I don’t realize that it was in my life.”

Yuliia can’t imagine what life will be like after the war, saying the prospect of peace “seems something distant and even strange” and says she regrets the time that has been lost with loved ones.

“I do not regret my choice. Both before and now, I am sure that if I can help at least one of our soldiers, all of this is not in vain,” she says. “At the moment, there is not one but dozens of them and it is scary.”



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