Rejecting the narrative that casts women with children as victims of war, more and more Ukrainian mothers are choosing to become agents of change, actively fighting to bring about the war’s end.
“I’m not a mother anymore,” Marta said, looking down as she wrings her hands. She does not mean it literally—her three sons, a 28-year-old and 14-year-old twins, mean everything to her. She explained that like many mothers, she feels like she is not doing enough or is not present enough, and that maybe she has lost her maternal designation as a result.
But after fighting for more than a year on the front line of the biggest war to bloody Europe since World War II, Marta is more certain of another title she’s earned—that of senior combat medic in the 1st division of the 130th battalion of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF).
While sitting inside the makeshift medical stabilization point outside Siversk and responding to a never-ending stream of text messages, phone calls and radio transmissions from her unit, the 52-year-old with cropped, silvered hair and kind eyes sips black coffee and plays with two recently rescued kittens wrapped up in a traditionally woven, bright-red blanket as she talks. The stabpunt is just a couple of miles from enemy lines.
“I don’t feel guilty that I am here at war and not with my kids,” she said when Serghi, who is a combat medic in the same division of the battalion, comes in and sits down to prepare his gear. “But my husband might have more to say about that,” she added, nodding toward Serghi and puffing on her e-cigarette.
Marta officially signed up in April 2021 as whispers of a coming war gained tenor. Her husband joined six months later. “I couldn’t let her go alone,” he said.
They were ready when the full-scale invasion erupted and were immediately deployed to defend the nearby Sikorsky Airport. When it became obvious that the country would not be conquered in three days, as the Kremlin had predicted, Marta alternated between performing medical duties and other carework, like cooking and cleaning, for her division.
By mid-March, she convinced her initially reluctant commander to send her on a mission alongside her husband to push back Russian forces from the occupied suburb of Irpin on the northern front. Her first base was located across the street from the city’s stadium, where her kids had played in a match just days before the war began. Her family photos from that day are the last ones they took together, she said. Now there are gaping voids in the stadium’s stands, blast holes in the turf from shelling. The devastating reality of the invasion hit her at that moment, she said, and she knew that she would be on the front line until the war is over.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in early 2022, millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have taken refuge across the world to escape the war. Tens of thousands more mothers sleep in Soviet-era bunkers with their kids every night, unable—or unwilling—to leave the country or their children’s sides. But more and more women have joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) since the country’s large-scale mobilization rapidly rolled out this past year, switching up the traditional wartime narrative that portrays women, and mothers with children especially, as victims of war instead of as agents of change actively fighting to bring about the war’s end. It has not been easy, though.
I don’t feel guilty that I am here at war and not with my kids. But my husband might have more to say about that.Marta
In conversations with a dozen women currently serving in the UAF, several trends could be seen in the challenges they face as servicewomen with children and the solutions they have found to overcome them. [As active combatants, they asked to be identified by their first names only to protect their families and maintain operational security.]
Although all of the women said that they felt respected and appreciated by their fellow service members, every woman shared experiences of sexist treatment and the constant need to prove themselves to counter gendered assumptions about their abilities and know-how. More than anything, they spoke about the weight they felt to protect both their children and their comrades during this time and the reasons that they decided, counterintuitively to some, to safeguard their children and their family’s future by donning camouflage on the front.
“I would be happy if she stopped,” Serghi said, speaking of Marta’s military service.
Then he quickly launched into an explanation about how martial law offers an exemption for one parent of a household with children to avoid the draft. He supports Marta and her decision, he said, but feels it would be “better for our family” if she were side by side with their children.
“Dads are important, but kids need their moms,” he said.
The declaration of martial law in February 2022 further cemented traditional gender roles in the country, requiring men ages 18 to 60 to register for service and banning them from crossing international borders. Although the Ministry of Defense issued an order to expand the draft to include women with certain professional skills in late 2021, implementation was delayed until October 2023 due to continued opposition and a lack of the necessary infrastructure.
The country’s conscription policy dictates the sex distribution of refugees fleeing Ukraine, positioning “women as responsible for the burden of care for children and elderly persons, especially those seeking safety abroad,” according to research by Jessica Trisko Darden, an expert on women and conflict and an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University near Washington, D.C.
The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of the roughly 8 million Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Europe are women and children.
“By holding men captive, martial law has undervalued women’s potential contributions to the war effort and reinforced traditional gender norms that position women primarily as victims of, rather than participants in, armed conflict,” Darden wrote in the January-February 2023 issue of Women’s Studies International Forum.
Fighting to Protect
Kristina had to argue with the recruitment officer at her local military outpost to sign up on Feb. 24, 2022, she recalls, as she carefully picks her way through the rubble of a freshly bombed municipal building, still on fire and possibly mined, on the eastern front of the war in Ukraine. Originally from Crimea, she rushed to enlist as quickly as she could after seeing the news of the first Russian strikes on the capital, and was one of the first people in line. The recruiter’s reason for turning her away initially, he said, was because she did not have any combat experience, although she was already a certified medic, with months of civilian tactical training courses under her belt. But Kristina—29 years old and petite with a mane of jet-black hair, penetrating eyes and a tongue piercing—can be intimidating when she wants to be. Standing on a ledge, pointing out munitions still protruding from the ground near a bridge blown in two to stymie the Russian advance, she chuckled as she recounted how she refused to get out of the line full of young men who were equally eager and often equally inexperienced
Women have been integrated in Ukraine’s military for decades, with the right to officially serve in combat positions as of 2016, shortly after the 2014 Maidan Revolution, when pro-Kremlin forces killed about 100 civilian protesters and then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Today government officials say that about 41,000 women are members of the UAF, with roughly 5,000 serving in combat positions. But women most likely make up a smaller proportion of the armed forces now than they did before the full-scale invasion due to the military’s expansion, and they are still discouraged from seeking frontline positions—along with the prestige and related financial incentives associated with them, wrote Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, in Foreign Affairs magazine.
“You must take me because I need, I want, I can,” Kristina remembered repeating, over and over, to the overwhelmed soldier taking names. She had come to the office ready to be deployed; her bags were packed, and her mother and brother had already agreed to take care of her 8-year-old son, Zahar, in western Ukraine, where she hoped they could wait out the war in safety. The recruiter finally relented, and within an hour she was the newest combat medic in the 92nd brigade of the 128th battalion of the Territorial Defense Forces of Kyiv.
That was only her first hurdle. As a woman and a mother, she often feels like she has to justify her presence on the front, even though she is now a sergeant.
“Some guys tell me that I need to go home because I am [Zahar’s] mom and he doesn’t have a father,” Kristina said, smoking a cigarette and crouching outside against a wall in anticipation of another air strike. “But then I save a life and I understand that I can do this—and maybe other people can’t. I think I must be here, because I can do something, I can protect them.”
The gendered belief that mothers need to be with their children implies that they should not, then, be fighting on the front lines. The Ukrainian military struggles to “reconcile the strength and capacity of its women with antiquated attitudes about gender roles,” Oliker wrote in Foreign Affairs, concluding that this has been one of the major failings of the armed forces over the course of the conflict, and has been detrimental to both the war effort and women’s progress toward equality in civilian society.
Kristina attributes much of her fortitude as a soldier to the lessons she learned as a mother caring for her newborn son on her own. “It was the hardest time of my life,” she said. “If someone gave me a choice to have one more child or one more war,” she jokes, “I’d tell them I’ve already got a son.” And while some critics of the full integration of women into the military have cited men’s “instinctive” inclination to protect women as a weakness of mixed-gender military units that leads to a breakdown in order, such behavior can sometimes provide a benefit.
“I make it like home,” 53-year-old Marianna said of her unit. Sporting short hair, a shiny eyebrow piercing and a stern gaze, she said, proudly, “They’re comfortable if there’s a woman. It increases the spirit of the group.”
Marianna had joined the TDF two years before, eventually signing up for a few private marksman classes. When Russia’s invasion began in 2022, she was called up immediately. Her husband, also a soldier, was already deployed, so their oldest daughter, 30, took over care of their 13-year-old son, while their 25-year-old daughter stayed in the capital.
The photographer for this story is DIEGO FEDELE, an Italian freelance photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. His work focuses on topics of migration and social issues. After the Russian invasion last year, he traveled multiple times through Ukraine to understand the conflict and what people are enduring; he is committed to making a long-term observation of the consequences of the war.
This article originally appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.
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