Following the annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict in Donbas in 2014, numerous Ukrainian women enlisted to fight for their country. Many of them, however, ran up against pervasive male prejudice in the country’s armed forces – including from some of top military commanders. Out of this strife, Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement (UWVM) NGO was born.
In an interview with NV Radio, UWVM’s co-founder Kateryna Pryimak talks about how women have been faring in Ukraine’s Armed Forces more recently.
NV: What’s the current mission of your organization?
Pryimak: Since Feb. 24, we pivoted towards rapid response to various emerging crises. Helping women, both uniformed and civilian, remains our priority. This includes supporting vulnerable women with children who come to us for help.
As veterans, we are more accustomed to the conditions everyone finds themselves these days. We feel responsible for those less capable to fend for themselves.
Before the war, we were fighting for the rights of women in the army. Our Invisible Battalion campaign opened up a lot of positions in the military for women.
These days, we’re working to set up psychological care and training projects for women – helping them deal with overwhelming stress, and learn new skills, like, for example, driving a truck, or basics of field medicine. We can’t remain concerned exclusively with women, so we accept anyone into our training programs, despite being a women’s rights organization at our core.
NV: Speaking of skills, what do you think every Ukrainian citizen should learn how to do?
Pryimak: It’s difficult to come up with something universal, as sometimes you need a very specific set of skills.
From my experience, being able to drive is very important for civilian women to learn. Once men in their families leave for the battlefields, women are left to fend for themselves. Should the territory fall under enemy occupation, you have to flee.
Many women found themselves unable to evacuate, even with access to a car. That’s why we launched a training course, teaching people how to drive, bypassing the usual rigorous driving school process.
Another crucial skill is first aid. First and foremost – learning how to stop the bleeding, as blood loss is the most common cause of death, even after otherwise minor injuries.
NV: How does one apply for these training programs?
Pryimak: We announce these training and psychological support programs across our social media pages.
The easiest way is to become one of more than 200 volunteers. They are civilians we prioritize working with.
NV: Was there something you managed to achieve before the war, something that’s already been resolved?
Pryimak: Successfully lobbying for establishing 63 combat roles for women comes to mind. We have to be clear that moving towards gender equality in the armed forces is a rather lengthy process.
When we first began our work, women in the army were not considered at all. Now, our officials say things like “our brave men and women, defending our country,” and I know we played a part in that.
The Invisible Battalion was working with media to raise awareness about the role of women in our military. It wasn’t always easy. I realized we’re good at our job, after I saw the premiere of a Ukrainian film Visions of a Butterfly by Maksym Nakonechnyi – the picture is about a female soldier.
Both Ukrainian and Western media pay a lot of attention to our heroic women in the army.
We’ve done a lot of work to make sure women could apply to Ivan Bohun Military School, for instance, allowing young girls to choose to become military officers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
There’s still some ancient, musty sexism present in the army, but the war has done much to change that.
There’s still some rather cringe-inducing stuff: female soldiers participating in military parades in high heels, or some regiments “congratulating” their fellow service members with “blonde day.”
The country is in dire need of qualified professionals, and nobody cares now if you’re a man or a woman.
A lot also changed after Valerii Zaluzhnyi became Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, too. There are still some issues, but we’re open and frank about discussing how to resolve them.
There are more and more women choosing to serve in the army. The share of women in our armed forces is already higher than in other European or NATO armies. For some reason, we’re still waiting for someone to teach us how to better integrate women into our military, despite us having patently more experience with the matter.
Our women in the army are an unparalleled phenomenon. It absolutely rocks to see them join, engage, apply themselves, and grow within military structures.