Nadiya Savchenko
Nadiya Savchenko

Nadiya Savchenko's fight against Russia's justice system captures headlines, but it is her persistence in the face of discrimination in Ukraine to which many women relate.

The 34-year-old is Ukraine's only female military pilot and a veteran of Ukraine's mission to Iraq, with a military career spanning 13 years. When her 2014 request to deploy to the war zone was rejected, she joined a volunteer battalion.

She trained recruits and fought alongside men, yet was officially offered a non-combatant position of "morale officer," as related to activist Maria Berlinska by Savchenko's sister, Vera. Before Nadiya Savchenko could decline or accept, she was captured in battle by Russia-backed separatists and subsequently taken to Russia.

She is now facing a 23-year prison sentence in Russia and is hailed as a hero in Ukraine. 

"She set an example of unbreakable will, both as a woman and an officer, by taking up arms to do what is every Ukrainian's duty: to protect our native land," said Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko before a crowd of Ukrainian female leaders at a ceremony dedicated to International Women's Day.

Nadiya Savchenko
FILE - Nadiya Savchenko is now facing a 23-year prison sentence in Russia and is hailed as a hero in Ukraine.

The recognition comes despite the fact that Ukraine's military regulations, supported by the country's labor regulations, ban women from professions associated with hard labor — including multiple military specializations and participation in active combat. Military education opportunities are also limited. Savchenko dealt with this reality in her military career.

She is now hailed as a female military pilot by the government, but in 2005 — after serving in Ukraine's mission in Iraq — she had to personally lobby the minister of defense to be able to enroll in Ukraine's Air Force University in Kharkiv. Savchenko had dreamed of being a jetfighter pilot since childhood, but graduated as a helicopter navigator. She was twice expelled from the university.

Recognition, pay fall short

By many accounts, Savchenko was not treated as a man's equal in the military.

"Women's role in Ukraine is not recognized appropriately. This fact vividly highlights the inequality between men and women in the country," Iryna Troian, expert in Gender Studies at Ukraine's Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told VOA.

Only a small fraction of the 14,000 women who served in Ukraine's armed forces in 2015 — including almost 1,000 at the front lines — enjoy the same salary, benefits, recognition and prospects as men in equal roles, according to a recent study. The report, entitled “The Invisible Battalion,” highlights the lack of recognition of women in combat.

Existing regulations neither honor women who went through combat, nor provide incentives for women with invaluable combat experience to stay in the army, says activist Berlinska, one of the report's authors.

Berlinska trains drone operators and conducts aerial reconnaissance for the military in eastern Ukraine as a volunteer. A past run-in she had with the military was bitter.

Activists protest in front of Ukraine's Defense Mi
Activists protest in front of Ukraine's Defense Ministry, campaigning for women to be granted more active management and combat roles in the Ukrainian military's conflict with pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, in Kiev, Jan. 21, 2016.

She joined the army to work in aerial reconnaissance. Commanders did not mind, but offered to enlist her as a bookkeeper. "This meant accepting five to 10 times lesser salary," she told VOA.

Additional strain on women

Labor regulations that thwart and discriminate against women in the military based on their gender also govern employment rules in other spheres, Berlinska points out.

"In reality, women do hard physical labor just as men do, but are paid less," she said of the situation in Ukraine's labor force.

According to the IMF and the World Bank, in militarily- and economically-troubled Ukraine, an average monthly salary was roughly $147 in 2015. Yearly per capita income dropped to $2,108, as compared to $4,029 in 2013. This, among many other debilitating factors affecting the population in general, also undermines women's opportunities to participate in social and political life.

"Women occupying the same positions as men on average are paid 25 percent less," Iryna Troian of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy told VOA.

Some wartime problems touch virtually every Ukrainian citizen; others are most severe for women. According to La Strada Ukraine, an international women's rights center, many women suffered from violence and sexual abuse in the war zone; others suffered at the hands of men returning from the war.

Domestic violence is also widespread, according to La Strada.

FILE - Ukrainian government army women soldiers patrol an area in the village of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Dec 24, 2014.

"Currently, almost every woman in Ukraine performs acts of civil heroism to maintain households and provide for their children, especially women in the war-torn east," says Nina Potarskaya, director of Ukraine's NGO Center for Social and Labor Studies.

Underrepresented in politics

Increased participation by women in politics could advance gender equality and help address the plight of Ukrainian women. Political life, however, is where gender inequality is most striking in Ukraine, says The Global Gender Gap Report.

Women in leadership positions are no rarity in Ukraine's politics, as seen by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Current Minister of Finance Natalia Jaresko is likely to take over the government, should Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk leave the cabinet over public discontent with the slow pace of reform and corruption.

Still, women hold only 47 seats in Ukraine's 450-member parliament.

Women are severely underrepresented in Ukraine's political life, according to a study by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S. non-profit organization.

"There is a widespread acceptance of women in leadership positions in Ukraine, but the law hasn't quite caught up with the public opinion," Laura Jewett, NDI's regional director for Eurasia, told VOA.

Jewett argues that gender quotas granting representation of women on party tickets can ensure change.

Quotas granting that women make up no less than 30 percent of a party ticket in parliamentary or local elections were embedded into various laws after Euromaidan, but they are not enforced, which effectively leaves women's participation at the discretion of party leaders.

"Ukraine is largely a patriarchal society," said Svitlana Zalishchuk, a reform and anti-corruption activist turned member of parliament.

Zalishchuk authored a bill suggesting financial incentives to political parties granting women representation on election tickets. She says that she never encountered discrimination, but suggests institutionalized sexism is a problem.

"Women have visibly less opportunities to break through in politics, and as a politician I see various mechanisms at play here," Zalishchuk told VOA.

Some high-ranking male officials might be interested in securing gender-based privileges for men, Oleg Marushchenko, director of the KRONA Gender Informational and Analytical Center in Ukraine, told VOA.

Yet despite challenges, Ukraine's progress is noticeable. For instance, Ukraine's first Rada in 1990 had only 11 female parliamentarians (2.3 percent). And Ukraine's national police is now trained to prevent gender-based violence. Multiple activists and politicians VOA spoke to are determined to continue pushing for change.

Yet for quicker progress, commitment from Ukraine's elite is crucial.

"Women are changing the dominant culture, but the change will come sooner if the country's leadership will show goodwill and enable women's advancement," Zalischuk said.