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'Bravery has no gender': How is the war impacting Ukrainian women?

FILE: Ukrainian women hug in front of a building destroyed during a missile strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.
FILE: Ukrainian women hug in front of a building destroyed during a missile strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Joshua Askew
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Women are not "just victims of Russia's war", they have laid down their lives on the battlefield, said one expert.


No one is left unscathed by war. It has catastrophic and at times transformative impacts on both sexes - yet still there are gendered dynamics.

Sexual violence and civilian deaths have become an endemic feature of the Ukraine war, amid gruesome accounts of women being beaten, raped, tortured and executed.

Head of the Center of Civil Liberties Ukraine Oleksandra Matviichuk said more than 41,000 war crimes had been documented in Ukraine by the ‘Tribunal for Putin' Initiative, bringing together several Ukrainian NGOs monitoring the situation on the ground. 

“It's just the tip of the iceberg, but we know a lot of women and children are victims,” she said at an event organised by the US-based McCain Institute on Tuesday.“The crimes have grown so large it is impossible to recognise all of the stories”.

Matviichuk recalled a harrowing interview with a Ukrainian woman, who had just lost her entire family in a Russian missile strike.

“I heard them dying,” she quoted the woman as saying. “My husband was breathing heavily, straining as if he was trying to throw the rubble off himself, but he couldn't. At some point, he just went still. My grandmother died instantly. I heard my daughter crying and then she also went quiet. As for my son, my mother told me that he called for me several times, and then nothing.” 

She claimed Russia had “enjoyed” a “circle of impunity” when it came to targeting civilians, citing devastating war crimes of its troops in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, Syria and Lybia.

Deliberately targeting non-combatants is a war crime under the 1949 Geneva Convention, to which Russia is a signatory.

Moscow denies attacking civilians in Ukraine. 

But Matviichuk was quick to not present women “just as victims of Russia’s war”.

“I know a lot of fantastic women who do essential work, who fight for freedom and for our democratic choices. Women document war crimes. They take important political decisions and coordinate huge civil initiatives.”

“Women are at the forefront of this battle because bravery has no gender,” she added.

The same doesn't go for the other side, others claimed. 

“As somebody who has interfaced with high-level Russian military and defence officials, as a woman, I know that in the Russian system, there are very few women, if any, who have any sort of authority,” said Dr Evelyn Farkas, Executive Director of the McCain Insitute.

“The Russian women who are at senior levels tend to be mouthpieces of the government.”

Women do occupy top-level roles in Russia, with Elvira Nabiullina steering the country’s war economy as Head of the Central Bank.

It has traditionally been characterised as a patriarchal country, with social and cultural norms perpetuating male dominance and gender inequalities. The same can be said for many countries, including Ukraine, which have patriarchal elements. 

Vasilisa Stepanenko/AP
FILE: Femail Ukrainian soldiers in an equipment supply room in Kyiv, 6 December 2022.Vasilisa Stepanenko/AP

‘Democracy versus autocracy’

Ukrainian women are laying down their lives on the frontline, contesting gender stereotypes within the country. 


Though women have fought in the Ukrainian army for decades, their number started to climb following the Russian-backed war in the east that broke out in 2014. 

It has soared since Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022. 

They now account for some 22% of Ukraine’s military, according to Kateryna Pryimak, co-founder of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement.

At this week's McCain event, Farkas claimed this mobilisation showed how Ukraine was “banding together” to protect “human rights” and the nation – unlike Russian society which was “hunkering down”.

At stake in Ukraine was something profound added head of the Center of Civil Liberties Matviichu.


“Russia's war against Ukraine is not just a war between two states, this is a war between two systems.”

“In the Russian world, a woman performs only assigned roles in the family and society, and man must dominate. Authoritarian regimes are based on this cultural attitude because the established relations between people reflect the society’s idea of political power.”

How women are treated is “always a projection of what [a] government itself does to people”, she continued.

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