Women and the War - Inspired by their own knowing: Women, disability, and complex challenges

Women and the War - Inspired by their own knowing: Women, disability, and complex challenges

Blog post written by Phillipa Tucker – Coordinator Eastern and Central Europe, EDF

Much has been written about the war in Ukraine, but seldom do we read about the complexities of being a woman with disabilities during the war. Layers of human diversity, such as gender, age, income, location, and language have acted to compound an already fragile existence for many women, but the added layer of disability status is one which can, depending on environment, increase a person’s exposure to risk. On the face of it, the solutions to these challenges might seem obvious, but often it is in the nuanced details of people’s private lives that we are reminded that an altogether unusual solution might be what is needed. What we seldom acknowledge is that these people know best what the solutions might be. 

Women and the war 

Women inside Ukraine quickly and effectively adapted their existing skills and resources to the new situation and the evolving needs, leveraging existing networks to create initiatives that responded to the emerging situation. Women have organized since the very beginning of the war in roles which have been vital to the basic survival of people in the country, from preparing food, organizing transport to replacing farmers to ensure crops produce food. From the early days of the war, women also played a role as soldiers and in manufacturing military supplies such as camouflage nets. Increasingly women are also being trained in military combat, demining and other traditionally “male only” roles. “The perception of women, in general, has been very paternalistic,” said Anna Kvit, a Ukrainian sociologist who specializes in gender studies. “With this war that escalated in 2022, the agency of women not only increased, but it also became more visible.”

Women are both “responding and inspiring” says deputy regional director of UN Women, Blerta Cela. But women are also carrying additional burdens more heavily than male counterparts. For example, the medical care and nursing of injured soldiers has significantly increased the workload of nurses and healthcare workers in Ukraine, mostly women. Childcare was always considered more of a women’s role, but the war has meant that the responsibility has shifted almost solely onto women as men were conscripted in the very early stage of the war.  

Women have also been injured during the war, despite as many as 13.5 million women and children evacuating from the area quite early on, many, many women remained and have been injured during the course of the conflict. The story of Yuliia Serdiuk, 31, reported by The New York Times is demonstrative of the experience of many women. Yuliia was injured in a shelling whilst out with her son. Protecting him from an explosion with her body, resulted in her now being unable to walk and needing a wheelchair.    

Horrifically, women are also increasingly reporting sexual and gender-based violence against them. Human Rights Watch and various others are documenting cases of rape, repeated rape, violence, and other torture of women. The situation is so dire that human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations are now prioritizing the transport and access to emergency contraceptives into Ukraine to assist women with post rape care.

EDF partners are also reporting from Ukraine that women with disabilities are faced with a new form of violence. When men pressure and harass women with disabilities to marry because in this case the man will have the opportunity to leave Ukraine as a “personal assistant” to a “wife”.  

Women and children are not just at risk within Ukraine, as reports of predators in host countries offering homes to women fleeing Ukraine became public knowledge in the first days and weeks of the war.vii viii The ways in which women have been affected during this war, as with all wars, is complex, multi-faceted and profound. Few of these problems are new and are in ways just exacerbations of existing violence and discriminations against women. 

Complex lives 

During the summer, EDF staff visited several countries as part of our ongoing work with members in countries in Eastern and Central Europe. And it is during these visits that the complexities of how to respond become even more apparent.  

In one country, a sixty-something mother with two daughters with disabilities using wheelchairs, spoke about the impact of the war on her family. Larysa (not her real name) spoke about the need for an accommodation solution that allowed her to live with her daughters as she needs to turn them during the night for their own comfort and for health reasons. No housing solution proposed by the host country provided for Larysa to live in the same accommodation as her daughters and would instead mean that they would have to be in the care of a night nurse in an institution. The fact that governments are unable and unwilling to provide such basic options to people like Larysa who are asking for less rather than more intervention and after more independent living options is problematic.  

Larysa and her daughters were offered to return to Ukraine, to an area where direct and immediate danger was considered to be less of threat. And this is where the complexities of real life become obvious. The three women had not only suffered the violence of the war, but also the invasion of soldiers entering their home whilst still in Ukraine. Both have had a traumatic effect on the three women, as one would expect it would. However, when asked if they wish to return home, there is a resounding “No” from them. The male of the household, the father and husband had for years been abusive to the women and so there was a complex feeling of thankfulness for the opportunity to escape the violent home situation and never return. An unusual situation but one which is not unique to this family. 

Larysa and her daughters now live in a small community living situation, outside of Ukraine, where other women with disabilities or women with disabled children all live in close proximity and support each other. Even though this is not the ideal independent living situation, it does provide a good interim solution for these families which fled the war. The sense of community and support amongst these women is as Blerta Cela says, “responding and inspiring”. 

Inspired by their own knowing 

This is just one example of many that were found during the field visits and which our partners in country have worked with. It is a clear reminder to us to remember that real lives are more complex than we can imagine, and that disability status is one such complexity, but so is being a woman. It is a reminder to us that female soldiers can be beaten up at home. That successful businesswoman can be exploited and blackmailed. That old women are raped. But it is also a reminder that women with disabilities know what they need and are capable of expressing what they need and working with others to develop working solutions. Solutions which others might never dream are necessary. 


Featured image credit

“Demonstrating Women” (1962)
Kondor Béla