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Ukraine’s need for women in war conflicts with nation’s gender norms, VCU professor’s new research finds

Jan06, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Ukraine would operate under martial law after Russian troops invaded in February 2022. While the war in Ukraine has changed many facets of Ukrainian life, this decision also changed women’s role in Ukrainian society, reducing their ability to serve in the military on an equal basis with men, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor’s new research finds.

Jessica Trisko Darden, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences, is an expert on gender and political violence. Her latest peer-reviewed study, “Ukrainian Wartime Policy and the Construction of Women's Combatant Status” published in the journal Women’s Studies International Forum on Dec. 13, explores how Ukraine’s military policy decisions have limited women’s ability to voluntarily serve on the front lines by restricting their participation to highly gendered roles that focus on domestic or support duties, such as cooks and office managers.

“The Ukraine war echoes a global pattern where national militaries accept women in larger numbers than in the past — yet relegate women to roles that distance them from front-line combat,” she wrote in a Dec. 21 column for the Washington Post’s political science analysis section, The Monkey Cage.

Trisko Darden, who also serves as the director of the Security and Foreign Policy Initiative at the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute, said that, while headlines have emphasized women’s role on the front lines of the Ukrainian conflict, the reality “reflects a general bias within armed groups against women’s participation in warfighting.”

“In the case of military mobilization, women’s lesser position in society has given women greater freedom of movement and protection from front-line military duties. On the other hand, Ukraine’s military policies helped to reinforce gender norms that fail to distribute family responsibilities equally,” she wrote in her December column. “Surveys show many Ukrainians expect women to take care of all household, education, child-rearing and elder-care activities. Meanwhile, Russia’s increased targeting of civilian infrastructure has left many across Ukraine without power or water in recent weeks — with a disproportionate impact on women who carry out these domestic activities.”

Trisko Darden spoke with VCU News about women’s role in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia and what it means for this conflict and for global politics.

Why did you decide to study women’s role as combatants/civilians in the Ukrainian conflict and the Ukrainian military in the past year?

I’ve been studying women’s roles in the conflict in Ukraine since it began in 2014. I’ve written on the topic for the Washington Post as early as 2015 and in my 2019 book, “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars.”

This past year, I’ve been focused on how the human cost of the war has been felt unevenly, as I wrote in the Washington Post last March. Part of why the human cost is uneven is due to Ukrainian military policy decisions. This led me to analyze some of those specific decisions and examine their implications for women.

Tell us about the findings from your latest study.

Ukrainian military policy discriminates against both men and women, just in different ways. Men face age-based conscription regardless of skill, while women’s participation is voluntary. However, despite all military roles formally being open to women, gender biases keep women from the front lines.

The Ukrainian military has tried to adopt more equal policies, but those have faced pushback from Ukrainian society, which largely sees women’s place in society as guardians of the home and family.

Even though more women may be joining the Ukrainian military, their roles are different, and their participation is not valued in the same way as men’s.

What do these findings mean in the context of global conflict?

We shouldn’t expect men and women’s formal equality under law, which is the case in Ukraine, to automatically result in nondiscriminatory policies. This is especially the case when war empowers male-dominated institutions, such as the military. 

Women and children constitute the majority of refugees in this war because, under conditions of martial law, women have greater ability to flee. This affects the number of women who are then able to voluntarily serve. We haven’t yet developed systems of care that would enable women the same opportunities to serve as men.

How does the information you share in your research change the public’s understanding of women’s role as civilians/combatants in Ukraine?

The headlines about the prominence of women in the Ukraine conflict are misleading. Yes, many Ukrainian women are participating in the conflict — between 20,000 and 50,000, according to available estimates. But when compared to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women — an estimated 3.3 million refugees are women and children — who have left the country, it’s pretty easy to say that the vast majority of Ukrainian women are not fighting.

We saw a similar media fascination with female combatants in the battle against the Islamic State, where media reports focused on women in the Kurdish Peshmerga who again made up a small minority of combatants. This obsession with pretty young women in fatigues is skewing our understanding of women’s important roles in armed conflict


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