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Gender stereotypes in the media: Are Ukrainian women really only helpless victims?

The emergency that Russia’s “special military operation” has inflicted on Ukraine and its people has resulted in binary conceptions of men and women’s roles and responsibilities, in much of the western media’s coverage. The risk of such portrayals is that they narrow the lenses through which we see people’s agency and identify their needs. But what , what do we see if we look beyond gender stereotypes?

In this war, like many others, women are essentialised as mothers, men as fighters. Images of refugees fleeing from the brutality of military operations invoke age-old stereotypes of women, children and the elderly being led towards safety by young or middle-aged men.

Men, having accompanied their families to train stations or western borders invariably declare they are returning to join the military. They rarely mention this is now mandatory since since Ukraine’s general mobilisation of 24th February, which bars most men of fighting age (18-60) from leaving the country.

The binary picture painted by the current media narrative of traditional gender roles where women do the caring, and men do the protecting, fails to capture the diverse life experiences of Ukrainian women in relative peace and war.

Refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) are indeed often mostly women and their dependents. In Ukraine, hostilities since 2014 had resulted in 1.5 million IDPs. Then began the “exodus”, which the UN Refugee Agency called the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II” with over three million refugees by 15 March 2022.

As UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace & Security recognises, women are disproportionally affected by war, and need protection from many forms of violence, especially as refugees, and help for recovery from their traumatic experiences. But the resolution also emphasises their agency.

Casting women only as victims denies their agency, the skills and resilience it takes to keep themselves and those who depend on them as safe as possible. In Lviv women have been running “the nerve centre of Ukraine’s refugee crisis”; organised around country desks, they have been co-ordinating everything from transport logistics to directing those in need towards those offering help.

Portraying women specifically as victims of war fails to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Ukrainian women have long been disproportionately disadvantaged and, like many women elsewhere, experienced what the late feminist scholar and activist Cynthia Cockburn termed the “continuum of violence”.

According to a 2019 OSCE-led survey 75 per cent of Ukrainian women and girls had been subjected to some form of violence since age 15, 30 per cent of respondents to some form of sexual violence. Many women thus experience the current escalation of hostilities against a background of traumatisation prior even to 2014. Some indicators suggested that women’s social and economic equality had been improving, but these gains are now at risk. Protecting them as best possible is a contribution to Ukraine’s future.

Uneasy undercurrents in today’s gendered media narratives point to persistent problematic gender norms within Ukrainian society and amongst external observers. Around International Women’s Day stories of “women as fighters” emerged. Although contrasting with the “women as victims” narrative, they tap into another trope: the vengeful mother of the family and nation.

For example, the Daily Mail Online published an account of a video message posted on TikTok purportedly by Ukrainian women for International Women’s Day. Wearing military uniforms but, being masked and armed, also evoking self-portrayals of insurgents, the women project themselves as uncompromising freedom fighters threatening to shoot Russian soldiers like “rabid dogs” for “every child killed” in defence of Ukraine and its people. The article’s headline highlights this threat before referring to “machine-gun wielding women” pledging “to wreak vengeance”.

The headline’s language is sensationalising but in keeping with the topos running through history and legends of mothers unleashing their wrath upon those who have wronged them and their kin. The alleged fighters even speak to the stereotype of women as the future of the nation when they declare that their having taken their children to safety had ensured that “the genetic fund of our nation [was] reliably protected”.

The article neither contextualises the video, nor does it question its authenticity; though, whoever created it, the tropes are chosen to resonate with specific societal norms. It certainly says nothing about the role of women in the formal Ukrainian defence effort.

The media focus on the mobilisation of men largely missed that in principle it captures many women too. Since 17 December 2021 “women between 18 and 60 who are “fit for military service” and work in a broad range of professions are required to register with Ukraine’s armed forces”. A reservist surge capability in case of war, women between “20 and 40 can be mobilized for military service as regular soldiers, and from 20 to 50 years of age for service as officers”.

Serving in the Ukrainian military since 1993, womens’ roles expanded after 2014. In 2018 women became officially eligible to serve in most combat roles. They have been facing the same problems as women in other armed forces, such as sexism, bullying, sexual harassment or assault. Some male service members struggle to accept their presence as permanent, not an emergency measure, a further obstacle to integration familiar from other armed forces. Yet, by 2020 women represented 15.6 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces and by March 2021 nearly 22.5 per cent.

This reflects changes in attitudes toward and improvements in the reputation of the military since 2014. It is also linked to a process that led to the 2018 establishment of legal equality between female and male service members.

In 2015 serving women and veterans, supported by civilian experts, UN Women and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, started a multi-year project called Invisible Battalion. With a focus on women who participated in “counter-terrorism operations” in eastern Ukraine between 2015 and 2017, it aimed to systematically identify discrimination and overturn laws regulating military service rooted in patriarchal gender norms.

Women who were de facto serving in combat roles could de jure only be classified as administrators or tradespeople. They were deprived of career opportunities, including being barred from studying at military academies until 2019. Without official non-combatant status, they were denied full legal protection in war and, potentially, support as veterans. The women of Invisible Battalion have been instrumental in changing many of these inadequacies.

When we look beyond stereotypes, we see that the agency of Ukrainian women in the face of extreme challenges and traumatic events is diverse and abundant. Portraying women as helpless victims reduces them to passive recipients, and undermines their dignity. Rendering invisible those women who do not conform to dominant gender stereotypes hurts their dignity just as much. Meaningful public discourse and policy that brings about valuable long-term support, avoids both. 

In this story

Andrea Ellner

Andrea Ellner

Lecturer in Defence Studies

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