Gwen Battis joins JiC for this guest post on the gendered costs of Russia’s invasion and the war in Ukraine. Gwen is a graduate student at the University of Denver studying International and Intercultural Communication.
It has been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, inciting a future of violence, war, and displacement. With billions of dollars of Western spending and foreign assistance, Ukrainians are still suffering forced migration, torture and death. But what the common discourse around the conflict is missing is a focus on how this war, like all others, is inherently gendered and disproportionately affects women.
The Russia-Ukraine war is rooted in economic and ethno-national power relations. Yet, if we analyze how economic and national systems are built, it becomes apparent that a modern-day neoliberal state cannot be built without gender, masculinity, and patriarchy. Gender relations are just as guilty in causing conflict and militarization.
Entertain this idea: Ukraine sits in the international arena as a state on its way towards progressivism, striving for equity, freedom, and liberation, thereby moving farther and farther away from its Soviet past. Russia, on the other hand, in many ways represents traditional values, patriarchy, conservatism, and dictatorship.
If we were to categorize each state based on traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, we can more clearly see the gendered nature of this conflict: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is symbolic of an exertion of hypermasculinity, a forcing of obedience, and a violent response to Ukraine’s feminine opposition. For Moscow, Ukraine was supposed to play the ‘woman’ in the relationship and therefore expected to submit.
But what of Ukrainian women? If Ukraine as an entity is deemed worthy to be dominated, what of the most vulnerable population within Ukraine?
Ukrainian women and other female-identifying folks are shouldering a disproportionate weight of this war. They are enduring a conflict that is both exacerbating existing gender inequalities and creating new areas of insecurity. After a year of armed conflict, I hope we can take time to investigate how the cost of a dictatorship and the subsequent fight for freedom is creating a climate that inordinately exposes women to suffering and violence.
One of the most apparent consequences of the Ukraine war lies in the redistribution of family roles, which inevitably creates great costs for women. Despite the country’s movement towards a more progressive gendered climate, Ukrainian women are still viewed as the primary caregivers of the family, while men traditionally act as heads of the household with both access and control over family resources. Recent analysis tells us that gender roles are evolving quickly in Ukraine as men are conscripted to join military forces and women are left with the doubled burden of maintaining their caretaking role while now making up for lost household income.
As the responsibility of Ukrainian women is increasing on the domestic front, the threat of destruction of her home and community makes fleeing Ukraine among the only options for safety. Yet, migration out of Ukrainian borders is no guarantee for safety. Mass displacement of any kind, and in this case primarily of women, paves the way for human and sex trafficking and thus, increased risk of sexual exploitation. Current numbers indicate there are over 8 million Ukrainian refugees seeking asylum since the war began, with earlier data citing that at least 60% of those displaced were women. Women are thus plagued with impossible decisions, to either stay in Ukraine (which oftentimes still requires being displaced within the country) or to flee and risk entering situations where they are forced to trade sex for transportation, shelter, or safety.
Russia’s invasion has also done a number on access to gender-specific healthcare services. As medical facilities are destroyed and medical supplies dwindle, women, children, elderly citizens, and folks with disabilities are left with limited access to basic healthcare. Of critical importance is the lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare for pregnant women or women survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). Food shortages are depriving pregnant women of the ability to meet their dietary needs and carry their children to term. For those that do, more and more births are taking place in bomb shelters, underground bunkers, and subway stations. Left without access to proper sexual and reproductive care, women and consequently, their children and families, are facing detrimental health consequences, including lasting psychological and physical trauma.
The threat of sexual violence and rape to women is arguably the largest cost Ukrainian women face at the hands of Russia’s invasion. Although strategic rape has long been used as a weapon against women in conflict, researchdemands that we broaden our scope of conflict-related violence against women to include multiple variations of sexual violence beyond just rape. Sexual crimes of several variations have been reported in every part of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Ukrainian women live in perpetual fear of sexual violence, and face severe psychological trauma and mental health issues as both survivors and potential victims.
Despite Russia’s denials of any human rights abuses, extensive and persistent sexual abuse against women nationwide are utilized as part of Russia’s plan to tear apart the fabric of the Ukrainian family, weaken the resistance, and destroy Ukrainian society. Health risks for victims of sexual violence are severe. From sexually-transmitted diseases to genital mutilation, current healthcare infrastructure is failing to meet survivors’ needs. Additionally, international organizations like the UN’s attempts at accurately tracking and preventing sexual violence in the war are more diplomatic than they are efficient in practice.
War touches all aspects of a country: the community, the family, and the individual. It does not start and end within the boundaries of armed conflict. Similarly, the patriarchal gender relations of society are mimicked in the dimensions of armed conflict, as Ukrainian women shoulder a disproportionate weight of this war.
As the conflict rages into year two, women must be involved in the decision-making processes regarding this conflict and its resolution. Immediate aid in sexual and reproductive services are necessary and the gendered elements of this war as well as all war crimes must be elevated and highlighted in international political and media attention moving forward. Anything else risks leaving those gendered causes and drivers of war in place.
Beautifully written, incredible perspective. Thanks for shedding light on a topic that needs it.