Many stereotypes are associated with women in war. Overcoming them will take more than one year of systematic and professional work. This became one of the priority tasks of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement organization, which was created in 2019 and now has representatives in all regions of Ukraine. Activists seek to change society’s attitude towards women in the army, to expand women’s opportunities in society, and to show that having a military profession is prestigious.

This is a conversation with Kateryna Pryimak, deputy head of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement and winner of the Euromaidan-SOS award. Read below about social coworking, barriers in society for both sexes and the importance of believing in one’s own strength.

Women are great personnel potential for the army

The Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement was formed naturally – due to the needs of the women veterans themselves. Many of its members met thanks to the Invisible Battalion advocacy project, the purpose of which is to highlight the issue of protecting the rights of servicewomen and veterans. According to Kateryna Pryimak, most women went to war voluntarily and were highly motivated.

“Some of the women entered the army for positions that are not combat, but service – clerks, cooks, etc. Women wanted to go to war, and were ready to do it under any conditions, – adds the veteran. – Over time, many achieved their goal and were allowed to the front lines, and later proved that they were capable of fighting with weapons in their hands. Only according to documents, women continued to be clerks and cooks.” For example, the leader of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement Adriana Arekhta was actually a fighter of the “Aidar” battalion of the Armed Forces, she liberated cities, has an order for courage, but according to documents, she is still a seamstress. Vika Dvoretska is the operator of the bathhouse on paper, although, in reality, she was the company commander’s deputy. All of that has happened because at first, it was not possible to officially appoint women to the positions they were responsible for.

In 2016, the sociological study was published “The Invisible Battalion: Women’s Participation in Military Actions in the ATO”(“Anti-Terrorist Operation” – the name of the conflict and all military action between Ukrainian army and Russian military forces with pro-Russian separatists that temporarily occupied part of Ukrainian territory in the East in 2014. – editor’s note) by Tamara Marceniuk, Anna Hrytsenko, and Anna Kvit. Its authors tried to find out the specifics of women’s part in military operations, as well as to identify the achievements and problems in the integration of women as military personnel.

Since then, this topic has been widely discussed in the press, and finally, in 2018, the law on ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women and men during military service was created.

According to Kateryna Pryimak, after that, the number of women in the army grew gradually because women are great personnel potential.

“Although we have changed the legislation,” – adds the veteran, “in reality, society is not ready for a woman who has the right to choose (including a military profession). Society is not ready for women veterans returning from war to civilian life either. The last issue is still very important and not at all resolved.”

The goal of the organization is to give women the opportunity to feel empowered again

The “Invisible Battalion” campaign and the desire to create Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement was supported by UN Women Ukraine. Kateryna Pryimak says that from the beginning they aimed to create not just another organization, but a powerful movement.

“We have already seen the potential of the women,” – adds the activist. — “First, they voluntarily go to fight for the country, then they change the legislation and solve the problems of women veterans. This is a huge civic potential. The idea of the organization is to give women, who often return after the war with burnout, the opportunity to feel their strength again. We want them to hold positions in public services, enter politics, and business.”

To find common ground, the women first organized eight gatherings of female veterans in different regions. “Despite the fact that we are all very different,” says Kateryna, “and may have opposing views, the common thing is that we are black sheep in society.” For more than a year, the activists communicated with female veterans, and engaged in project activities, and in October 2019, their organization was officially registered.

Who can join the movement?

Now we have almost 400 participants. In general, the number of women who took part in combats is constantly changing. Currently, there are approximately 27,000 of them.

Not only women veterans but also volunteers and activists — all women who have lived through the war for eight years — are accepted into the ranks of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement. “Now we have almost 400 participants,” – adds Kateryna,” In general, the number of women who took part in combats is constantly changing. Currently, there are approximately 27,000 of them.” If at first the movement was joined by the women who told each other about the organization directly, now it is those who see the organization’s activities and adopts its values.

The Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement is trying to cooperate with the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, in particular, it is implementing a project that is supposed to better the rehabilitation system for veterans. “We have assembled a group of expert doctors,” Kateryna continues, “who are working to ensure that veterans receive quality rehabilitation. According to the law, we have everything, on paper our needs are provided, but in reality, it doesn’t work. The human factor decides a lot.”

The problems are common, the solution approaches should differ

In addition to building relationships with family, she also has to look for a new job.

After returning from war, the first area of reintegration is the family. “Relations with a husband and child get complicated by the fact that a woman is fighting,” says Kateryna. — “It is clear what society thinks about this, especially in rural areas. We are faced with the fact that children can be bullied at school because their mother is “different”.

In addition to building relationships with family, she also has to look for a new job. And it is more difficult for a woman. “And not because she’s a veteran,” – Kateryna is convinced, “but because that’s how society works: employers are sure that sooner or later a woman will go on maternity leave if she is young, and if she is older than 40 years, no one needs such an employee.” 

The impact of service on the health, and reproductive systems of men and women, etc. are also different.

“We have support groups for men and women veterans,” – says the activist. — “But women will not talk about their problems in front of men, because before that they held on and showed their strength in service. This is one of the main tasks of our movement. Supporting each other is just talking and listening.”

Women receive psychological help free of charge

Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement provides it in several forms: for example, peer-to-peer support groups. Members of the organization include many women who were psychologists in the army or received this specialty after service. There are also powerful qualified psychologists. Women receive this support free of charge. “Of course, I want to have the finances to provide quality therapy,” – admits Kateryna. — “Currently, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs offers a ridiculous price for psychologists for a session — 255 hryvnias (about $40 – editors’ note). This is an unrealistically low price.”

The organization also performs the services of a coordination center. “If there is any initiative for veterans with a gender component, they always come to us,” – Kateryna assures. “For example, we don’t provide medical services, but we know who you can contact to get them.”

Starting a business after service: success stories of women veterans

Many women, returning to a peaceful life, start their own projects. Kateryna calls the mentorship of businessmen who worked with female veterans the most useful initiative of the organization. There are also many other places that conduct similar training in entrepreneurship (for example, the Kyiv School of Economics).

“One of the first and most successful businesses I remember is Viktoria Tkach and her Slice&Dry’s brand of dried meats and fruits.” –  Kateryna says. “Now the business is expanding, finding new sales points. The gold medalist of the “Invincible Games” Maya Moskvich has a souvenir shop “BeyZot”, and also an archery school for children. Oksana Gospodarenko, a volunteer and member of our movement, makes artisanal jams, and Vasylyna Plebanovych revives the technique of making ancient traditional Ukrainian clothes. Yulia Sidorova (“Cuba”) creates designer clothes. She presented her work at Ukrainian Fashion Week. Photographer Yulia Fobia makes postcards, and Yulia Bilous creates knitted toys that are popular abroad. The latter’s business has a special history: the woman is from Luhansk, her husband was in captivity. The therapist advised Yulia to count movements while knitting to forget about problems for some time. So something good came out of a traumatic experience.”

Social coworking as a safe environment for learning and relaxation

One of the organization’s projects is Social coworking, which operates in the Women Veteran Movement Lviv branch. According to Khristi Grunyk, the head of the branch, the main goal of the coworking space is to create a safe environment in which women can study, rest, receive help and even spend the night if necessary. “Social coworking is currently at the stage of formation,” – says the social worker. — “We have an office in the center of Lviv, where we systematically hold various events. Veterans, volunteers and just woman who would like to help the movement may join. Here we study, hold educational and artistic events, watch films.” Soon, it will be possible to receive psychological help here, in the social coworking.

Last year, the organization received a grant to create a small printing company. Now they will be able to print and sell veteran merch, and the profits will help maintain this social coworking space.

Khrystia from the Lviv branch has been involved in community activities and volunteering for many years. When she joined the organization, she first thought about how she could be useful. “The organization helps me to feel a part of the community, among people with similar views,” she adds.

The importance of such support during adaptation back to civilian life is noted by another representative of Women Veteran Movement Emma. “Thanks to the program, I found a new profession,” – says the activist, “as well as real friends. Here you can communicate with “your own” people, find help, participate in educational and cultural events, receive psychological support, and implement your own projects. Such initiatives unite us, improve the legal status of women in the army, and contribute to the creation of a positive image of veterans. And all this together has a positive effect on the development of our country.”Read more about it on the MEDIA OF GREAT STORIES page.