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How many women are defending Ukraine against Russia’s invasion?

Since the onset of Russia’s military aggression in 2014 and its full-scale war in 2022, Ukrainian citizens have consolidated their efforts and demonstrated remarkable unity in defense of their country. 

Thousands volunteered for the Armed Forces, and Ukrainian women have not been an exception. They took up arms to fight for their country’s independence and personal freedom. Over the years, their numbers in the ranks of AFU only increased, the range of their positions became more diverse, and even uniform and protective ammunition for women has seen a rapid transformation.

Ukrainian women in the military

In Ukraine, there is no mandatory military draft for women (however, those with medical degrees must register with local draft centers). Therefore, all women in the ranks of Ukrainian defenders joined them voluntarily.

After the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2014, there were almost 50,000 women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, 16,500 of whom were directly serving in the military. This number increased by 40% after the start of the full-scale invasion. 

As of January 2024, women constitute 7.3% of the Armed Forces of Ukraine: there are more than 62 thousand women in the AFU, and 45,5 thousand of them hold military positions.

A military paramedic with the call sign “Lastivka” (swallow bird).
Photo: “Lastivka’s” personal archive

There are more than 7,000 female officers, almost 12,000 non-commissioned officers, 23,000 female soldiers, and 1,300 female cadets. Over 5,000 women hold senior positions in the Ukrainian army, and over 13,000 have been granted combatant status. 

More than 4,000 women are currently taking part in the fighting.

Сhanges in the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Over the past few years, Ukraine has seen significant changes on the path to gender equality in the armed forces. According to the Ministry of Defenсe of Ukraine, the country has lifted official restrictions on women’s access to all positions in the military.

Thus, while earlier Ukrainian women mainly served as medical specialists, communications specialists, accountants, clerks, and cooks, now women can be drivers, grenade launchers, BMP commanders, deputy commanders of reconnaissance groups, machine gunners, and snipers on an equal footing with men. 

Since 2019, they have also been allowed to enter military lyceums. Women who want to obtain a profession and hold high positions in the armed forces have access to all levels of military education.

Many women already hold senior positions in the Armed Forces. For instance, in 2021, Tetiana Ostashchenko was appointed as the Commander of the Medical Forces of the Armed Forces and became the first woman to hold the rank of brigadier general in the Ukrainian army.

Striving for NATO

The increasing number of women in the Armed Forces aligns with Ukraine’s close cooperation and exchange of experience with NATO countries, where women make up a notable part of the military.

According to the European Organization of Military Associations and Trade Unions, as of 2023, women accounted for 9% in the Armed Forces in Belgium. In the Bulgarian Armed Forces, women represent 17%. In Denmark – 17%, and in Germany – 13%. 

In 2021, women comprised 17.3% of the active-duty force in the US Army and 21.4% of the National Guard.

Adapting to new conditions

In the modern Ukrainian army, women stand shoulder to shoulder with their brothers-in-arms. However, the equipment, uniforms, and ammunition have not always been designed considering their needs and bodies. Amidst Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion, Ukrainians are actively working to change this and improve conditions for women defending the country on the frontlines.

For instance, at the end of 2023, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine approved the first bulletproof vest tailored to the female anatomy. Its design features include a curved armor plate, narrowed shoulders, and a widened bottom. Moreover, this bulletproof vest is lighter than the traditional male models, starting at 10.5 kilograms, depending on the size and configuration.

A sample of women’s bulletproof vest for military personnel.
Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The Ministry of Defense also approved new designs of women’s underwear for military personnel in 2023. It has already been tested in the Armed Forces for functionality, reliability, quality, and comfort.

At the beginning of 2024, the Armed Forces of Ukraine began issuing women’s military uniforms, although private initiatives and companies were covering the demand for it prior. The new uniforms were developed by the AFU in cooperation with NGOs and Ukrainian manufacturers to ensure the comfort of female servicewomen performing combat tasks in the field and at points of permanent locations. The clothes are made in sizes from 40 to 64 (from XS to XXXL), ranging in height from 146 to 188 centimeters.

Despite any difficulties, Ukrainian women are voluntarily and actively defending the country,  participating in the liberation of temporarily occupied territories, serving in intelligence, providing medical aid, operating drones, and much more. Learn more about some of their personal stories and motivation: