Even before the Russian military fired its first strikes in its assault on Ukraine, there were signs that this conflict, like all wars, would upend the peacetime relations and identities of men, women, and people of all genders and inflict suffering on them in very particular ways.
Writing about World War II, the Russian author Svetlana Alexievich reflected that, “Women’s war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”
Last week, the image of a wounded and pregnant Ukrainian woman curled on a stretcher appeared on the front page of nearly every British newspaper, and Western leaders, as well as the Ukrainian president, mentioned the horrors facing women and children in every address calling for unity. But the Western supporters of Ukraine, especially the US, NATO, and the European Union, who have insisted for more than two decades now that women’s security shapes their approach to dealing with war, have done little to show that gender will be their framework, or even a framework, for addressing Ukraine’s predicament.
We already see this war cementing old gender roles and inflicting terrible harm on people of all genders in the process. The forced universal conscription of men in Ukraine and Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are resurrecting binaries of men as defender-warriors and women as fragile and needing protection. At the same time, the dozens of Ukrainian women signing up to fight, and the narrative imagery of these gun-strapped blonde soldiers skittering across social media, makes it hard to talk about gender and this war in conventional ways.
Ukraine is contending with the tensions of a masculine narrative playing out in border policy and the narrative of brave Ukrainian female warriors rising to repel the advancing enemy. Grimmest of all is the imagery of mobilised children. Recently a picture of a little girl with a lollipop in her mouth perched on a window with a weapon circulated online. What might prove most challenging for a traditional gender-sensitive approach to this war is the emerging and dominant glorification of the militarisation of an entire society.
Despite universal forced conscription, many men do not wish to fight. Men trying to leave the country have been shamed by crowds for not wanting to stay. Trans women who are identified as men in their paperwork have been stopped at the border and prevented from leaving.
We know from other contexts where there seemed no alternative but to mobilise men of fighting age that it often causes further problems down the line. In Nigeria, too, communities saw little option but for young and middle-aged men (and some women too) to join fighter groups to defend themselves from the attacks of Boko Haram. Protecting the family and community was integral to what it meant to be a good man so men and even adolescent boys faced significant pressure – from their friends and others in their communities, from the state, and from themselves – to join such groups. This development blurred the line between fighter and civilian and meant all people living in these locations were seen as fair targets.
In conflicts where similar dynamics are at play, we see little time in the urgency of battle to train these civilian men and women (and others) who mobilise. Any training provided tends to focus on arms handling skills rather than vital concepts of how to wage war in ways compatible with human rights, international humanitarian law, and civilian protection standards. Not surprisingly, levels of human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are higher in conflicts where civilians are mobilised in this way. Indeed, new Ukrainian laws make it legal for anyone to kill invaders. Yet, discussions around military support to Ukraine so far have failed to sufficiently centre the need to mitigate civilian harm during the course of operations.
The response to date not only disregards the potential dangers of forced conscription for men and boys, but it also does not fully consider the risks it creates for women and girls. It is possible that Russia’s floundering war may yet be slowed by compromise, but it appears that for the foreseeable weeks, women will be left to navigate ways to safety, and tasked with their own wellbeing as well as that of their children and the elders they have with them, without the customary support of their partners. Because women without men are seen as more vulnerable, they are more likely to be preyed upon. The strain of finding shelter and food, access to healthcare and education will be acute, and even worse for those with disabilities. Yet, there is insufficient attention paid to these intersectional and gendered vulnerabilities with people with disabilities saying they have been left to fend for themselves. Nor to the 100,000 to 200,000 children segregated from society in Ukraine’s orphanages and at risk of violence, abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labour.
Gender also seems missing from the discussion on non-military responses. The unexpected Western unity and quick sledgehammer of sanctions brought down on Russia by Ukraine’s allies may initially be felt most acutely by the well-off and internationally-oriented middle class, but over time, as the economy tanks, those who are already most marginalised and vulnerable will be hurt the most. We know from the most punishing sanctions regimes of recent memory, imposed on Iran and Venezuela, that these measures erode women’s labour force participation and leadership in key sectors, sap feminist activism, and boost securo-patriarchy, as skittish governments double down on masculine propaganda. The international reverberations of the sanctions – the rise in gas prices, and the grain shortages that are already ensuing from a break in Russian and Ukrainian supplies – will also be felt by the most vulnerable people worldwide, including the disproportionate numbers of women, people with disabilities, and children already facing hunger and poverty.
And we know that during times of both conflict and economic uncertainty, levels of gender-based violence increase. How the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of military forces is already well-documented. The journeys across borders and into the homes of strangers undertaken by the more than two million Ukrainians who have fled so far (mostly women and children) leave them vulnerable to human traffickers and sexual exploitation. Women selling sex may be at risk of violence by soldiers and further human rights abuses. Not even when the fighting stops will there be a respite. Other conflicts show that gender-based violence rises during fighting and can increase even more when the bullets stop and men suffering from war trauma return home, to find women have been forced to take on decision-making roles during their absence.
Indeed, Russia’s security anxieties and the revival of NATO have reconfigured the Cold War. But before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s optics of bare-chested horse riding and emphasis on his physical manly prowess signalled he saw his country’s path as militant-minded, if not actually yet militant, and showed how militarism is linked with this very particular notion of masculinity.
Russian disinformation campaigns have tried to lodge the idea that entrance into NATO will require the acceptance of Western gender relations and the excising of traditional values. This clash of gender norms and associated masculinities finds the greatest resonance in the conflict bros, the foreign legion called for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and endorsed by Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary. Missing from this picture – whether it be the all-male Cabinet shared in Zelenskyy’s Telegram videos or the Biden-Putin-Zelenskyy triad – are women with feminist perspectives. They are largely marginalised in real decision-making at both national and global levels in this conflict despite feminists in Russia and elsewhere mobilising against war.
The last two weeks have highlighted how quickly countries resort to old ways of acting in times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic and climate crisis, resources that proved difficult to find for provision of decent basic services and reshaping economic systems in more (climate-) just ways have been quickly mobilised for defence expenditure. To widespread applause, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, announced the immediate establishment of a fund of €100bn to boost military strength and a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years. Sweden, Denmark and Poland also agreed to bolster military expenditure.
Is this arms spending race, action that seems certain to hurt gender equality, and world of militarised masculinities really the future we want? Alternatives seem impossible to imagine right now. In the midst of crisis, the drumbeat to war is overwhelming. Time to think, analyse, and reflect before acting seems like a luxury for another time. Yet, we have been here so many times before and it is vital to react differently.
Countries like Canada, France, Spain, Finland and Sweden say they have a feminist foreign policy. Yet, mentions of the deeply gendered harms inflicted by this war and how to better protect people of all genders, have been few and far between in the responses of nations who say they are committed to gender equality and women’s rights thus far, eclipsed by a focus on boosting arms deliveries and economic sanctions. These states should not only aim to apply these policies to the Global South battlefields where they usually administer their Women, Peace and Security agenda. They need to translate to being more prepared, vocal, and mitigating gendered harms during an unfolding war in Europe itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.