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Day of Defenders of Ukraine: will Israel’s experience help overcome the discrimination of women in the Ukrainian army?

Today, on October 14, Ukraine celebrates the Day of Defenders of Ukraine. To dispel the Soviet gloom of the "Defender of the Fatherland Day" still honored by some, when boys and men, even though many of them may never be in the army, are given banal presents like cups and socks, we decided to talk about women who defend Ukraine.

According to the General Staff of the AFU, about 57,000 women are serving in the Ukrainian army in 2022. More than 5,000 women were fighting on the frontline in July 2022. The increase has been drastic: in 2021, there were only about 25,000 women in the Ukrainian army, while back in 2008, there were only 1,800.

Women in the Ukrainian army occasionally complain of discrimination ranging from prejudice to the glass ceiling preventing their promotion.

In October 2018, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a law to ensure equal rights for men and women in the army and abolish the ban on women serving in a number of ground close combat roles. Although communications, medicine, logistics, and staff work are still considered "traditional" for women in the army, more and more women are mastering combat specialties as well.

The Page talked to a former Israel Defense Force officer and military analyst Yigal Levin about the Israeli experience of engaging women in the army and asked about the ways to achieve real gender equality in our Armed Forces.

Yigal Levin spoke about Israel's experience of fighting the discrimination of women in the army. Photo: facebook.com/LevinYigal

Yigal Levin spoke about Israel's experience of fighting the discrimination of women in the army. Photo: facebook.com/LevinYigal

On the gender gap in the number of the military personnel

How can the government contribute to reducing the gender gap in the number of military personnel?

The thing is, it was a long and incremental process in Israel.

Israel has existed for more than 70 years. Women have been conscripted since the founding of the state, which was in 1948. Speaking deeper, women were already members of the Israeli underground, or more precisely, the Jewish underground in Palestine. They were fighters, revolutionaries, and the like. And even deeper in history, women have been members of the security structures of proto-Israel, and later Israel, for more than 90 years.

So, the presence and visibility of women are a result of a decades-long process. The first full-fledged combat units where women held infantry positions appeared only in the 2000s, and women pilots in the 1990s. Before that, they had also been conscripted but served in logistics and similar areas.

By the way, this is also true for Ukraine. In Ukraine, women mostly serve as medics.

As of today, this glass ceiling has been broken. However, this is a lengthy process. In Ukraine, you cannot adopt a law so that everyone becomes equal, everyone can serve, everyone can hold positions in combat units, and so on. I consider it unlikely.

Meanwhile, the evolution of civil society and women’s movements within it will indirectly affect the army as well, since the army is always a cross-section of society. Hence, the place of women in society would define their place in the army, and vice versa. This is very important. Especially if you think of a future large people’s army, which will include territorial defense forces, an extensive reserve, veterans, etc.

Society has to be in direct contact with the army, and if a wide social discussion is raised on the issues of women’s representation and equality (in politics, economy, business — everywhere), it will naturally affect the Ukrainian army as well.

On the discrimination of women in the army

What legal mechanisms can prevent the discrimination of women in the army and violence against them?

In fact, only punishment. In Israel, any pressure on women in the army, both in active service and others, has a legal qualification, and we (men – The Page) can easily be brought to court.

What measures should be taken in the event of discrimination or violence (after it happens)?

If violence happens, the case is brought to a military court. A person can be degraded — even a general can be demoted. Depending on the offense, it can also entail fines, compensation, dishonorable discharge, etc.

These were real cases, not just rules on paper. For example, once a colonel was discovered to have had sexual relations with his secretary, and a scandal followed. He was degraded and dismissed with disgrace.

When I served (from 2006 to 2007 — The Page), there was another incident when a sergeant major used his position, power, capabilities, and resources at his disposal for sexual coercion of servicewomen. He was degraded and dismissed with disgrace, and this was announced in mass media, so he was decried before his family as well.

That’s why the legal mechanism has to be punishment. It’s crucial. If offenders don’t feel the letter of the law hanging above their heads, they will feel impunity and it will encourage them to harass women.

On masculinity and aggression in the army

How can we get rid of the culture of aggressive, toxic masculinity in the army?

It’s a double-edged sword. The army is a very masculine institution by itself. There’s nothing wrong with aggression for it: fighters have to be aggressive to punish the enemy.

When the first combat battalions with infantry servicewomen (Caracal, for instance) appeared in Israel, it didn’t mean that the level of masculinity in the army, including special operation forces and regular brigades (Golani, Givati, and others), was therefore lowered. No.

There’s still a cult of force, aggression, winner, and hunter. But women have also been allowed to engage in it. It doesn’t mean that this cult was thus undermined for the sake of gender stereotypes (implying that a man is aggressive and masculine while a woman isn’t). The army is aggressive and masculine by itself.

Meanwhile, in order for it to not be toxic, there should be a legal mechanism that is severe punishment. Sexual violence? Punishment. Harassment? Punishment. Discrimination based on biological sex? Punishment. There must be punishment, and it must be effective.

However, getting rid of nepotism and corruption, when brother bails out brother, uncle bails out uncle, friend bails out friend, etc., is another big issue. I am not a lawyer, political scientist, or sociologist, unfortunately.

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