Russia’s War in Ukraine and Women’s Agency
Despite the unabated destruction and devastation caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war also opened new doors for a leap in women’s agency. Ukraine is fundamentally rethinking gender roles, expanding the opportunities of its citizens, and serving as a model for other countries.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are the first place where women’s voices have been amplified. Ukraine has allowed women to participate in military operations to guarantee national security and defense, and they help repel and deter armed aggression by Russia. Currently, 40,000 women serve in the AFU, including in combat roles. Furthermore, 8,000 women hold officer positions and 5,000 serve on the front line. In the near future, a separate combat unit may be created that will consist exclusively of women. The creation of female combat units in the AFU and other military formations will ensure access to positions for women and provide opportunity and equality of rights regarding their military service.
A leap has been made in the participation of women in decision-making. Those who previously did not take responsibility for making decisions were forced to do so at the family or community level. Displacement has changed the social circumstances of families and communities, leading to new opportunities for women’s agency. The economic burden, husbands’ presence at the front line or inability to work, depletion of savings or resources, and increased care burdens create space for women to engage in decision-making at the level of family and livelihood. According to the Rapid Gender Analysis of Ukraine conducted by CARE International and UN Women, within the first months of the full-scale invasion, women’s leadership and their role in decision-making increased at the family and community levels. Women reported participating on equal terms in family decisions in response to the crisis.
A leap has been made in the participation of women in decision-making.
Women actively volunteer and are at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance to war-affected communities. While men tend to be more engaged in defense and security activities, women assist vulnerable populations and support the AFU. Women are also responsible for coordinating humanitarian aid provision, looking for new housing for displaced people, accepting humanitarian cargo, searching for tourniquets, buying wheels for hospital beds, cutting fabric for nets, and fundraising.
The involvement of Ukrainian women in nonprofit organizations has also led to a big leap forward in tackling domestic violence. In July 2022, Ukraine ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. This decision was made under the pressure from a coalition of over 50 women’s rights organizations, which organized several campaigns promoting the ratification. Such mobilization demonstrates that domestic violence is not sidelined and that women are being heard even during Russia’s full-scale invasion. Moreover, it reflects a clear understanding that conflicts at the individual level give rise to them at the meso (group) and macro (interstate) ones—this is very well demonstrated by Russia, which decriminalized domestic violence a few years ago. Programs aimed at reducing domestic violence also, in the long term, contribute to reducing the level of violence in society and of willingness to live with it.
The war has triggered an even more advanced level of digitalization that concerns everyone, including older women. Those who did not have computer skills have mastered them today. Older relatives or acquaintances joined Telegram, Signal, and other platforms they did not use before, including online stores and other services. Adopting new technologies has become the only way to claim benefits, receive an internally displaced person (IDP) certificate, and apply for financial compensation for real estate property damaged during the hostilities, which can be done via Diia, the government application and web portal that offers access to many public services and digital documents. Now women are taking more responsibility in areas traditionally considered a prerogative of male family members.
Female members of Ukraine’s parliament and activists have also been at the front line of international diplomacy, advocating the country’s interests.
The war in Ukraine, from which millions have fled, has presented neighboring countries with unprecedented challenges but, at the same time, numerous opportunities as most refugees, 90 percent of which are women, bring many benefits to the communities where they temporarily settle. Their level of education, for example, differentiates them substantially from other refugees. According to a survey conducted in Germany, Ukrainian women refugees tend to be well-educated, with 72 percent having a university degree. Even working in jobs below their educational qualification, they bring their valuable perspective and experience. Moreover, they become informal ambassadors of Ukraine in their communities.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, female members of Ukraine’s parliament and activists have also been at the front lines of international diplomacy, advocating the country’s interests with European and US partners. For example, in different fora, Ukrainian women have made pleas for more weapons. In 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviychuk said: “Yes, I am a human rights defender and for peace, but today I am asking to give more weapons to Ukraine”. On a similar note, in July 2022, during her visit to Washington, D.C., Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, asked Congress for weapons, “weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land, but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home”.
Women also play a crucial role in transforming traditional views on peacebuilding. Requests by Zelenska, Matviychuk, and hundreds of other women have made the world reconsider the traditional role of women and look at them not as victims but as agents of change. Achieving a gender-balanced environment requires stopping viewing women through the lens of conventional social roles and focusing more on their agency and contribution to peace.
Daryna Dvornichenko is a GMF ReThink.CEE fellow 2021 and a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford.
This article was first published on August 1, 2023 on OXPOL The Oxford University Politics Blog and licensed as Creative Commons CC-BY-SA. Small editorial amendments have been made to the text.