Kyiv, Ukraine – On a rain-soaked grassy field at a military training centre, a dozen Ukrainian army recruits are lined up in staggered formation with guns pointed forward in position to quickly pull the trigger.
They are practising formation drills on how to storm an enemy position. The drill sergeant yelling out commands is 23-year-old Diana*, who goes by the nickname Sledgehammer. She joined the military six months before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
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“I didn’t think I would be in the military when I was growing up,” Diana said. “As every little girl, I just wanted to live a happy life, working to be able to travel and see the world.”
As Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv in the early days of the war, Diana’s brother signed up to fight against the invading forces. Diana also decided to join him and asked to be moved to a combat division of the Ukrainian army.
“I couldn’t just stay aside, so I joined him,” she said.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of women who have voluntarily joined the Ukrainian military has surged.
There are about 50,000 women serving in the Ukrainian armed forces in combat and non-combat roles, of which about 10,000 are currently either on the front lines of the war or in jobs that could send them to the front lines, according to Ukrainian military officials. There were about 32,000 women in the military prior to the invasion.
Military service in Ukraine for women is voluntary, but the government is considering making it mandatory for women with certain skill sets. It says a decision will not be made until next year.
Ukraine has made no secret about how it needs more soldiers to fight a potentially long war against an adversary with greater manpower.
As of 2021, Ukraine’s military had 196,600 soldiers, the second largest in the region, but dwarfed by Russia’s 900,000-strong military, according to statistics from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
As Kyiv weighs whether to order some women to join the military to boost the numbers in its ranks, many women continue to join voluntarily.
Natalia*, 38, worked as a nurse before the war. She said she read that 90 percent of wounded soldiers die from bleeding, so she decided to join the military – on February 25 – the day after Russia invaded.
She is now an army field medic. She has painted her nails yellow and blue – the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
She said her nephew was killed by Russian soldiers on the outskirts of Kyiv in the opening weeks of the war.
“I want to be on the front lines of this war because I want to help the soldiers I am serving with,” Natalia said, after practising simulation drills in putting a tourniquet on a wounded soldier’s leg.
“We need to win this war as soon as possible and get back to peace because our cities are being destroyed and people killed – men and women. Enough is enough.”
Katya*, 25, also said it was Russia’s invasion of her country that prompted her to recently join the military. She is also training as a battlefield medic.
“I am a patriot for my country so I could not sit on my hands during this war,” she said. “I want to save people and fight for independence from Russia for my country, so my children will never have to live through this.”
When asked what it was like to be a woman in the army in the middle of a war, she said: “I am glad to be here because sometimes women are underestimated in the Ukrainian army. But we are doing quite well. We sometimes have more strength and we can do many jobs. We are dynamic and we inspire patriotism for our warriors to fight to the end.”
*Interviewees requested their full names not be used for security reasons.