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Ukrainian Women Stand Strong Against Russian Invaders

LVIV, Ukraine — In the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tanya Kobzar was having nightmares.

“I was waking up in the middle of the night, terrified. I would look at a black-and-white photo of my grandmother, which I have framed on a table,” she recalls. “She reminds me of how brave a person can be.”

Kobzar’s late grandmother was an army medic in World War II. It’s become part of the family lore — how brave she was, treating soldiers on the front lines. So when Ukraine went to war again last month, Kobzar — a 49-year-old mother of two — decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. She left her office job in health care supply chains and enlisted in the army.

“I did this for my children and for my country,” says Kobzar, who’s using her military nickname in this NPR interview, rather than her full surname, for security reasons.

Her first stop was boot camp, where she learned how to fire a weapon. She found it surprisingly easy. “Easier than making borscht!” she says and laughs.

Now Kobzar is deployed at a military academy in the western city of Lviv, where she’s teaching soldiers how to set up field hospitals. It’s a training role. But many other Ukrainian women are on the front lines.

Under martial law, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, and encouraged to fight. Women are under no such mandate. Still, many of them have nevertheless taken up arms against the Russians — in this war, and in past ones.

Ukrainian women have actually been serving in combat almost a century longer than American women. There were female Ukrainian officers in World War I, in the Austro-Hungarian army, and in World War II, in the Red Army.

“The Bolsheviks and the Communist parties, they declared equality between men and women in all the spheres, including the military,” says feminist historian Oksana Kis.

Despite that history though, it wasn’t until after Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine that women enlisted here in the Ukrainian armed forces in huge numbers — and were officially recognized as combat veterans, with full military pensions. Before conscription, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s military was female.


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