Return to news
17 December, 2021
Exclusive interview with gender advisor

All legal restrictions for women’s access to military positions will be lifted soon. Currently, they apply to certain naval jobs and jobs involving toxic and explosive substances. However, it doesn’t mean there will be a bunch of qualified female divers once the restrictions are gone. It means that restrictions on access to a certain profession-based simply on your gender are unacceptable in a democratic country.

So, when would it become possible for Ukrainian women to build a military career on an equal footing with men? Are women ready to take more responsibility? Why are there over 400 gender advisors in the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

We discussed these matters with Natalia Rybakal-Kalmykova, gender advisor to the Commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.



The material was created as a part of the Eastern Flank program, a joint project by Censor.NET and the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO).

 I thought that Ukrainian society is already past things like “there are no female issues in the army.” However, during seven issues of the Eastern Flank, I’ve heard things like women cannot be pilots due to their unstable vestibular system, rumours about the way women get promoted, and even archaic ideas such as women’s role are limited to raising children. So let’s sort it out. Is it true that men and women have equal rights and opportunities in the Ukrainian army?

- These statements reflect society as a whole. Since the army represents a certain segment of the society with its own unique features, the stereotypes are still there and they continue affecting decision-making in the army, including in terms of career progression. Women have to put much more effort into proving their eligibility for a particular position. The fact that women are simply not seen as worthy candidates is not a brand new thing and it isn’t unique to Ukraine. Currently, there is no career progress ranking system in place in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The system is meant to rank service members according to their professional and personal qualities, physical condition, and their relationship with colleagues and subordinates. Currently, there are no tools to allow junior service members to evaluate their commanders, only vice versa. Once the ranking system is in place, all candidates for a certain position will be ranked in descending order. Once the position is vacant, it will be given to the first person on the list. Not because the top candidate is someone’s protege or has connections at the top level, but because they are most fit for the position. The system will function properly provided that eligibility criteria are clarified for each position and all service members are subject to periodical appraisals.

- Why, in your opinion, is there only one female general, two female peacekeepers, one woman admitted to the SOF Q-course, and only a few success stories about women in military roles in the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

- This is because we have just started the reform. Legal restrictions for women’s access to military officer roles were lifted only in 2018, and it takes some time to progress from one rank to another as extraordinary promotions can only be granted twice. Women prevail in the administration and in the spheres where female representation was always high even prior to the commencement of the war and active promotion of gender equality, e.g., medical service, public relations, and document workflow. However, it was not until recently that women started taking military roles. So we need some time before junior female lieutenants grow into senior roles.

- There are over 400 gender advisors in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Gender advisors are attached to every commander of each type and kind of military force. When we talk about increasing the number of women in particular roles or jobs, there are arguments coming from the general public that this is more about quotas rather than professionalism. How would you comment on this? Also, how can gender advisors improve the state of women in the military?

- Gender integration is about changing the way of thinking, in the first place. Advisors should be assisting commanders in their decision-making by providing professional advice. In a perfect world, a gender component should always be taken into account. For example, in annual budgeting, money should be allocated for women’s uniforms that come in different sizes, for special equipment, including devices for pregnant women. There would be a few items of this kind but their cost would be higher than in case of bigger instalments. Next, commanders should understand the civilian population they are going to encounter during military operations. A military advisor is a professional who is supposed to participate in every process taking place in the military unit, giving advice and drawing the commander’s attention to all relevant aspects. Task number two is to raise awareness about gender issues among military personnel. Task number three is to participate in internal investigations into cases of sexual harassment in relation to both men and women. A gender advisor is an ambassador of equal rights and opportunities in the military unit, so they should be promoting respect for men’s rights, too. For example, some women tend to avoid exercising guard duty, so the duty should be assigned to someone else. In this case, it falls on the men’s shoulders. Yes, women with underage children should be released from guard duty, but that’s it. If you aren’t willing to perform guard duty because you’re a woman... OK, don’t join the army then.

- There were several high-profile sexual harassment cases in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. How do gender advisors see addressing this problem at the stage of prevention and raising awareness? And what is your response when it has already happened?

- The Armed Forces are no different from society as a whole. Military structures include the same amount of people inclined to violence as the general public does. Potentially, there should be a selection system in place to identify such individuals based on certain criteria as early as at the recruiting phase before they even sign a contract so that they never make it to closed military units. Today, we are working on a questionnaire for an anonymous screening of sexual harassment in the army. We need to know if there are any such cases among the military and if yes, how many. After that, we will resort to mechanisms developed by civil society, including organizations such as Invisible Battalion, Legal Hundred, and Women’s Veteran Movement. First, submitting an anonymous complaint that wouldn’t result in  retaliation. Second, conducting an investigation. We should change the approach as the investigation cannot be conducted by the individual complained about (in most cases, women report their direct commanders - ed.). Third, providing assistance to the victim, including psychological, medical, and legal assistance. The mechanism was already presented and I hope it will be implemented very soon.

- Talking about gender equality in the military, we usually resort to the Israeli example. First, they conscript both men and women; and second, they have very detailed written regulations on dress code, including authorized nail polish colour applicable to men and women alike. Will things like this be specified in the AFU statutes? Are women ready to sacrifice their red manicures for the sake of military service?

- Yes, indeed. We are going to adopt an Ethical Behaviour Code. Are women ready? If they aren’t, then they shouldn’t join the army. It creates controversy and has a negative impact on relationships within the team, affecting their combat-readiness levels. If you decide to join the army, you have certain rules to obey. When I was at medical school, we were also not allowed to have long painted nails as you cannot appear before your patients like that. It is normal. It is a professional standard.

- There are several positions in the Armed Forces of Ukraine restricted for women, including submarine jobs and jobs related to explosive and poisonous materials.  When are they going to be lifted?

- It is going to happen very soon. This question is on the agenda, all papers are ready, so it won’t take long.

- How can female leadership be increased in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and how can gender advisors help women enhance their visibility?

- The answer is three-fold. First, it is about personal examples of senior officers, including women in supreme or higher commander roles. Each one of them should be leading by example, demonstrating that it is possible. Second, women’s participation in special leadership training as a part of their university or college education. The third is, of course, working with the teams. These are the three must-have elements of success. We can go through military education institutions but we won’t get anywhere if the army leadership is not demonstrating a similar approach. When new graduates join structures where old approaches prevail, they can do nothing but adjust.

- How long will it take before we see women in higher commander positions in the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

- There is a very clear timeframe for progressing from one military rank to another.  If today there are female lieutenants, in 10 years’ time, they will be promoted to colonels and, a bit later, to generals. Things work much faster in the context of real military action and that includes integration, too. If a woman has proved herself as a leader, combatant, and reliable team member on the battlefield, there are no more claims about her being “fragile”, “vulnerable.” Everyone is satisfied that she is just the same as they are. 

Iryna Sampan