Thousands of women have gone to the front lines to join the Ukrainian army’s fight against Russia, and they often do so in uniforms that fit poorly because they were made for men.
The number of women soldiers in Ukraine has more than quadrupled since 2015, when about 14,000 were enlisted. Now, at an estimated 60,000 strong, according to U.S. Ukrainian embassy figures, they make up a sizable percentage of the country’s armed forces. Though the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has not recently disclosed how many active-duty forces are engaged in defending Ukraine, just before Russia’s invasion began a year ago, Ukraine said it had 261,000 active-duty armed forces and intended to bring that number up to 361,000.
And yet, there is still no standard female Ukrainian military uniform. For years, women have been issued men’s jackets, pants and even underwear. On average, women have narrower shoulders and wider hips, so uniform jackets are too big at the shoulders or too tight across the chest. And the pants, if they fit at the hips, they’re too big at the waist. Many women are uncomfortable long before they take their places on the front lines to undertake the grueling tasks of soldiers.
But local Ukrainian organizations are trying to improve this aspect of military life for women by producing uniforms designed specifically for them, since the government still has no plans to make women’s uniforms.
Olga Ushakova, like many female soldiers, was a civilian before the war broke out. She volunteered to fight because she saw it as her duty to help protect her country. Based in north Ukraine, she works on communication transfers for her brigade.
“The most important problem for women in the army is the lack of women’s belongings, such as uniforms, underwear and shoes. All things are in male style,” she told CBS News. “Sizes often are larger, and all things have to be hemmed.”
Ushakova met Iryna Nykorak, founder of the organization Arm Women Now, who was able to provide her with a hemmed and fitted uniform. Nykorak told CBS News that over 90% of women fighting for Ukraine need to have their uniforms hemmed in order for them to be comfortable. She currently has a waiting list of several thousand women.
“This is the least we can do for our defenders. Women apply to us en masse with a request to provide them with uniforms,” she said.
In the Donetsk region, Anastasia Mohina spent the first cold months of the war in sneakers and an oversized men’s uniform, jealous of the men in her unit with three pairs of socks and boots. With all the shops closed and unsure of who to turn to, she called her brother, Andrii Kolesnyk. He quickly sent her boxes of warm socks, thermal underwear, gloves, a hat, and a uniform tailored to fit her.
Newly aware of the need for uniforms and equipment for female soldiers after his sister’s call, Kolesnyk created an organization, along with co-founder Kseniia Drahanyuk, to provide boxes with sanitary products and uniforms designed for women’s bodies. The organization Zemliachky, which roughly translates to “women compatriots,” was born. So far, Zemliachky has met the requests of over 5,000 female soldiers — all of it sent for free.
Historically, those on the front lines of war have been men, which has led to a lack of equipment suitable for female soldiers. Only recently have countries like the U.S. begun to provide customized uniforms that allow women to be more agile and comfortable on the front lines. The first female U.S. army combat uniform was only issued a decade ago, in 2013.
Mohina says she is happy with her updated uniform, which enables her to work “as quickly as possible” without the constant distraction of rolling up and adjusting oversized sleeves and pant legs.
“Women have to fight to be respected and they still have to prove they are professionals, same as men. But we upgraded these ideas since the 24th of February (in 2022),” Kolesnyk said, making a reference to the Russian invasion. “Because back then, it was very unexpected when some woman said she wanted to join the army. It was a shocking idea. Nowadays, it is not a shock. We have developed the culture of a female soldier.”
Women in Ukraine also still appear to grapple with gender bias as civilians. A new Virginia Commonwealth University study found that while Ukraine’s views toward women in the military have improved and the country has also tried to adopt more equal policies for civilians, it has “faced pushback from Ukrainian society, which largely sees women’s place in society as guardians of the home and family” according to political scientist Jessica Trisko Darden, who authored the study. She observed that while the number of female troops are increasing, many are still facing bias on the battlefield.
Women do face sexism on the battlefield, Mohina confirmed. “You have to prove that you are not superfluous here, men do not need to do this,” she told CBS News. “But the attitude towards women is slowly changing, because each of us proves that she is needed here.”
Ukrainian lawmakers were recently on Capitol Hill asking members of the House Women, Peace, and Security Caucus for more weapons and support for their female soldiers.
“Our women fight with our men on the same level. They do I.T., they help in the kitchen, they are fighting, they do different work- whatever needs to be done,” Tetiana Yehorova-Lutsenko, the Kharkiv Regional Council head, told CBS News.
Rep. Lois Frankel, Democrat of Florida and co-chair of the caucus, told CBS News it is important to include women in security talks because “there is a much better chance for far-reaching peace.” Yehorova-Lutsenko said she is working on setting up rehabilitation centers for women veterans that focus on mental health services. Zemliachky is also working toward providing mental health services for its female soldiers through a program that would give soldiers access to free sessions with psychologists.
For Ushakova, leaving Ukraine was not an option. “I am lucky to be born in Ukraine, Ushakova said. “Now, after a full-scale invasion, it is my duty to be here and protect my country from the enemy. ”