In the month since Russia invaded the sovereign country of Ukraine, the world has watched in horror as Ukrainian cities have been destroyed, civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and millions have been displaced.
As of March 27, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that there have been 1,119 civilians killed including men, women and children, although they believe the actual number to be much higher. This number does not include military casualties.
To date, more than 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled to surrounding countries as refugees, the sixth-largest refugee outflow over the past 60 years. Most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country.
Ninety percent of the more than 3.7 million refugees fleeing Ukraine are women and children.
Leaving one’s home country and belongings behind without knowing if you will ever return is a significant act of bravery. Women have been tasked with figuring out what to do next amid great uncertainty, often while protecting loved ones, including young children.
Many brave women have also stayed in Ukraine. While the majority of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are made up of men, 22.8 percent of the Ukrainian forces were female as of 2021—approximately 57,000—and many more have joined since the fight began. For many women enlisting, this is a repeat of history as they follow the footsteps of their grandmothers and great grandmothers who fought in World War II.
According to NPR, Ukrainian women have been serving in the military a century longer than women in the United States. The current uptick in Ukrainian women enlisted in the army can be traced to the Maidan protests in 2013 and when Moscow annexed Crimea in the eastern Donbas region in 2014. Since then, the number of women in the military has doubled.
Women have also been crucial to the country’s democratic shift since the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence in 1991, and they continue to be important as they learn how to use Kalashnikov rifles, give birth in bomb shelters, and singlehandedly confront the Russian soldiers invading their cities.
Helping where it is needed
In addition to doing their part on the military front, women also bear much of the social and emotional burden behind the scenes. Women make up the majority of volunteers at soup kitchens and refugee centers in Ukraine, TIME Magazine reports: “Their fight extends much further: the businesswoman storing medical supplies beside a fridge of freshly piped cakes in her patisserie; the wedding dressmaker switching out lace for camouflage; the schoolteacher running a hotline that searches for relatives in the besieged city of Mariupol.”
And women are making sure that the world never forgets what Russia has done.
One hundred and twenty female volunteers, many of whom are mothers, are documenting the Russian atrocities in Ukraine on a new database called Dattalion, a resource for the government and media full of videos and images of Russian atrocities and human rights violations. Much of the database consists of phone footage taken at war hotspots.
These so-called “Dattalion women” consist of former government officials, industry leaders, sports stars, and a fashion designer.
Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has also been using social media to shed light on the horrors of war and to impart messages of hope and support to her fellow Ukrainians.
In a message for Mother’s Day in the UK, Zelenska wrote a powerful essay in the Daily Mail, highlighting the horrors and commending the Ukrainian mothers for their bravery:
As a mother, I try to inspire my children. As Ukraine’s First Lady, I hope to inspire my country’s children. But it is I who am inspired by the children and the mothers of Ukraine. Let me tell you: they are incredible.
The other day, volunteers from the Ukrainian town of Beregovo—on the border with Hungary—helped a refugee from Mariupol cross the border into safety. Her name was Svitlana and she was a teacher. After weeks of constant shelling in the basement of her home, this exhausted woman was carrying no fewer than four children. Only one of them was her own.
The second child was her sister’s son. Her sister had run out of the house looking for water and did not return. The third child belonged to neighbours who had also been killed. The fourth was an orphan Svitlana had picked up on the street as she ran to the evacuation buses.
Thanks to Svitlana, four Ukrainian children are alive.
That’s what a real mother is—and I bow to her.
Women bearing the burdens of war
Wartime is not kind to anyone, but it is crucial to highlight the role of Ukrainian women in this war and the war’s impact on them. While men are disproportionately killed in wartime, women are often the living victims of the consequences of war.
Last month, on International Women’s Day, Sima Bahous, the head of UN Women, warned the UN Security Council that the current war risked “a backsliding of women’s rights and women’s access to employment and livelihoods,” in Ukraine. At a different event that day, Bahous said that the war in Ukraine and its impact on women “remind us that all conflicts, from Ukraine to Myanmar to Afghanistan, from the Sahel to Yemen, exact their highest price from women and girls.”
In wartime, women and girls face sexual violence and verbal and physical violence. Countries at war see advances in women’s rights regress. One of the most recent examples of this is the treatment of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021 and the reinstatement of Sharia law. This was a devastating blow to Afghani women who had spent decades fighting for rights and freedoms many of us take for granted.
Since the majority of the world’s refugees from armed conflict are women and girls, they carry the burden of obtaining humanitarian aid and security. Recent estimates have shown that 54 percent of people in need of assistance from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine are women.
And escaping Ukraine as refugees even to friendly countries does not guarantee safety, either. Reports have emerged of Ukrainian women and girls being attacked and assaulted in the countries where they sought refuges, such as Poland and Germany. Sadly, this is not unique to Ukrainian female refugees. In a research article published in the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that “one in five refugees or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings experienced sexual violence,” placing them at high risk for human trafficking.
In addition to the large numbers of women refugees fleeing Ukraine and the potential impact of this devastation on efforts that women have made in Ukrainian politics and human rights, accounts have surfaced of Russian soldiers raping and sexually assaulting Ukrainian women. Ukraine’s prosecutor general shared an account in a Facebook post of a woman who was repeatedly raped after Russian soldiers killed her unarmed husband.
Holding up hope
So much of the news coming out of Ukraine is devastating, and reading about it can lead to a sense of hopelessness. But reading about the difference women are making is inspiring, and we can do our part to make sure their sacrifices and contributions in protecting and lifting up others, whether from the frontlines, backlines, or homefront, is not forgotten.
The women in Ukraine, like women throughout history who have experienced the atrocities of war, will exhaust their options to make a difference—whether with guns and missiles, their voices online and in the streets, or just the strong faces they must put on for the sake of their children and loved ones.
In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a bronze statue of a beautiful woman is perched high on the Independence monument in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which translates to Independence Square. This square has been the site of political protests and rallies following Ukraine’s independence from Soviet rule.
The woman standing guard over the capital of Ukraine is Berehynia, a Slavic goddess from ancient mythology and a symbol of the nation’s hearth mother—the guardian of Ukraine’s independence.
The women of Ukraine are inspiring examples of the resilience of the Ukrainian people and are a reminder of the burdens that women bear in wartime. May history never forget their strength and sacrifice.