What It's Like to Be a Female in the Ukrainian Army
17 March, 2019
These two women share their stories of sexism and gender inequality in the Ukrainian army and beyond.

Halyna Klempouz (L) and Andriana Susak – two female soldiers who fought in the east of Ukraine – talk to Hromadske on March 5, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

Halyna Klempouz helped servicemen as a volunteer from late 2014. She was studying law in Kharkiv at the time. She made friends with volunteers from her home village in Ukraine’s Rivne region and, in 2015, she traveled with them for the first time to Kramatorsk, where the Horyn volunteer battalion were based.

“At first, I was just passing on aid from other volunteers, but then I said: No, I have to go myself and see it all for myself,” Halyna says.

It was there that her life changed. After talking with recently released prisoners, she decided to combine her studies with volunteering and kept returning to Donbas.

In August 2016, she signed up with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, where she ended up serving in the 54th Brigade. She even managed to complete her law diploma as well in February 2017.

She was transferred to the Donbas-Ukraine battalion on July 3, 2017. She had intended to extend her contract, however, after the death of her father in August 2018, she decided to leave and spend more time with her family.  

Andriana Susak is from Kosiv, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine. She was with the Aidar battalion from June 2014. One day, she decided to quit her job and traveled with a colleague to Donbas. She did not sign up with the Armed Forces, but fought in a Luhansk-based battalion with her husband, who has been injured several times. She left the frontline in 2015 when she became a mother.

The two women were introduced to each other during the premiere of the “Invisible Battalion*” film in Kyiv, 2016. They have been friends since then and work together on defense sector reform. They call themselves “sisters in arms.”

On Women in the Army

Halyna: My family have never objected to me serving in the army. Many women in my father’s family were in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA.) Women in UPA were on a par with the men and given many responsibilities, which they were ideally equipped for. The idea that it is normal for women to be in the army has always existed in our family.

Halyna's family never objected to her serving in the army, however the woman experienced a lot of sexism within the society. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

But, before Euromaidan, I never would have thought that I would be a soldier. If some would have tried to predict this, I would have laughed in their face.

On Sexism and Discrimination

Halyna: Sometimes men tell me to my face that this is “not a woman’s job.” I try to explain to them that I have a different stance on the matter.

Personally, I always try and separate the cases when the older men call me “my dear,” when I definitely know and understand that they think of me as a daughter. This does not offend me. But when people the same age or rank as me do this, it’s completely different.

Some of my male colleagues are really concerned about us girls in a decent way, and this is not sexism. They also care about each other and we sometimes take care of them in a sisterly way, we let them rest longer, we do longer night shifts.

Andriana: I believe that no one has the right to determine whether women should defend the country or stay at home. When I went to the frontline in 2014, there was no legislation on equal rights for men and women in the army. But I served equally with the men. The draft law 6109 (on equal rights for men and women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces – ed.) was passed quite a long time after (in September 2018 – ed.)

Halyna (L) and Andriana talk to Hromadske on March 5, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

In Canada, for example, the legislation on gender equality has been in place for more than a hundred years already, but we were speaking to Canadian soldiers and they say that the average person still faces cases of sexism. For the past one hundred years!

And we’ve not even had it for year officially and the struggle is endless. Starting with the Soviet norms on examining the physical abilities of the servicepeople. There’s nothing really about women. This needs to be resolved because now we are trying to initiate reform and achieve professional selection in the Ukrainian army.

Halyna: We carried out an experiment and asked Ukrainian men and foreigners: “Are you a feminist?” We got completely opposite answers. “I am not a feminist, I’m normal,” was the response from most Ukrainian men. “I am a feminist because that’s normal,” the men from developed countries said. This is, perhaps, a matter of time, education and awareness.   

Halyna (L) and Andriana talk to Hromadske on March 5, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

Andriana: If you put a man and woman in front of a troop and ask them who they would choose as their commander, they would mostly say the man. I liberated 11 cities, I was involved in prisoner releases, but, nonetheless, most people would say that I am a “Carpathian, who fought in the first months of her pregnancy,” without taking my military experience into account.

On Equal Opportunities

Halyna: In the summer of 2017, when I was with the Donbas battalion outside Mariupol, the volunteers gave us a drone. It was just lying in the bunker for week, no one even touched it. I asked a soldier who had learned how to use them why he didn’t want to fly the drone. He said it had different technology and he that he didn’t know how to use it.

I called Berlinska (Maria Berlinska, a Ukrainian soldier and volunteer, who founded the Aerodrome Support Center in 2014 – ed.) she gave me some initial instructions on how to start learning, I found out a bit more from YouTube, then I started flying it short distances, then a further. After two weeks, I did my first combat flight over water. I was really worried, but it was successful. We discovered several enemy positions.

Halyna inside a metro train in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 5, 2019. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

I then moved to artillery. The leader there have already given the specific task to find the targets. Later, my role with the drone was taken by a male soldier, who said that this was generally “not a woman’s job.” I was unpleasantly surprised, I laughed out loud and asked where he was before. Instead of asking me about the nuances of working with this specific drone, he was telling me about what a woman should be doing. In the end, we just couldn’t find a common ground.

Andriana: In Aydar, they called me “little one,” but, really, it wasn’t because I am girl but because I am short. I have never been offended. But when the “there’s no place for a woman on the frontline” starts, this is a direct violation of rights. This attitude towards women is mainly to do with men with complexes because when a man is intelligent and sure of himself, then he understands the difference between human kindness and discrimination, so does not allow himself to talk like that.

During the war, I carried just as many kilograms as the men. But for them to stop seeing women as burdens, they also had to undergo a certain transformation. In order to completely close the issue of “women in the battalion,” I personally went to two battles, which I took part in – the liberation of Shchastya and the storm on Metalist. After that I never heard the phrase, “this operation in complicated, so Andriana’s not going.”

Andriana (second left) and Halyna (far right) at a Female volunteer movement meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 7, 2019. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova

Halyna: When you go to the front, you clearly understand the conditions for going there. In a practical sense, there is no gender difference on the front. And no one is going to carry the buckets of water for you. My and my female colleague chopped wood for ourselves and I generally don’t see anything wrong with that.

Andriana: The other thing is, when some women just come for combatant permits so they can become “military wives,” and that discredits the whole fight for equal rights in the army. In the canteen queues, you can sometimes hear: “let me queue jump, I’m a girl.”  

Andriana during the Female volunteer movement meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 7, 2019. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova

Halyna: Many women discriminate themselves, deliberately or unknowingly. On the other hand, if a woman deliberately chooses to be a housewife, this is also a choice, but, in any case, it has to be meaningful.

There was an unpleasant incident where this guy wouldn’t come to the station to meet his soldier girlfriend when she came back from the combat zone because, in his mind, it would have been humiliating for him, as a man.  

On Setting an Example for Young People

Halyna: Little girls look at us now and it is very important that they understand that, in the future, they will be able to take on equal roles to men in the Ukrainian army, receive the same salaries and equally share responsibilities. Successful women in military inspire other women.

Halyna (C) at a Female volunteer movement meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 7, 2019. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova

Once upon a time I was at a conference for military lawyers where one of the speakers, an aspiring lawyer, was telling women that it’s not their job to go to the frontline. I had to tell these women that their work is not exclusive to office work.

And by the way, I shoot from mortars better than any male. All of these things are very individual and do not depend on gender.

Andriana: Sometimes I walk around with my little son and hear mothers tell their sons not to cry because it’s not manly. I tell my son that anybody car cry – both men and women – if they have a reason for it. It’s a different matter that I teach him how to be strong, not because he’s a boy but because any human being needs to know to stand up for themselves.

It takes more than one generation for people’s mentalities to change.

 On International Women’s Day and “Manly Holidays”

Andriana: For me, [March 8] is a day about women’s rights and a Mother’s Day. My grandma is 88, she spent 20 years of her life in a Siberian prison, these days she’s disabled. Every year, on March 8, I ring her to congratulate with the day of spring and women’s rights. I think the main thing is that this holiday is not thought in terms of “domestic goddesses.” We want the society to change but to be honest there’s nothing to celebrate yet as the changes are very slow. In the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces you can hear the phrase “my dear,” so the army needs to be reformed starting with them. Many don’t understand that significant changes will only take place after more than one generation.  

Halyna poses in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 5, 2019. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / HROMADSKE

Halyna: For me, it’s first and foremost, a mother’s day. I visit my mother and congratulate her because it’s really important for me. Speaking about my opinion about the holiday in general, I think it’s difficult to instantly change the mindsets of the older generation, which raised [younger generations.] And by the way, the questions whether I joined the army to look for a husband really irritate me.  

On October 14, on Ukraine’s Defender’s Day, there was a comic situation. We were asked to join the celebration at a culture house in my village. All the hosts kept saying “our boys” in their speeches. At one point, I lose my calm and ask “How many times will you repeat the phrase ‘our boys,’ when here’s me, a girl, your fellow villager, who defended Ukraine too?” They apologized, the hosts apologized several times. Then, after the event, I had a chat with the organizers and told them that changes start from within, one needs to eliminate stereotypical thinking from their minds. Women fight at war the same way men do and this needs to be realized. We exist, we managed to achieve through laws to be equal to men in the army.

Andriana: On the contrary, last year, I was invited to a Ukrainian Defender Day celebration to remind everyone that the army is not just about men. Personally, I was raised in a society with a lot of prohibitions and restrictions but this needs all to be changed and stereotypes to be killed.

*At the end of February, six Ukrainian female veterans of the Donbas war were invited to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Halyna and Andriana were among them. The women showed the "Invisible Battalion" documentary at the meeting (made by film directors Alina Horlova, Iryna Tsilyk and Svitlana Lishchynska), which tells a story of female fighters who took part in the war in eastern Ukraine. Andriana Susak is one of the six females featured in the film.