The official photos were aimed at showing the next generation of Ukraine’s military: dozens of younger women parading in fatigues and high heels, before a parade next month for the country’s 30th independence anniversary.
But after a wave of angry backlash from lawmakers, a protest outside the Defense Ministry and skeptical comments from cadets this week, the Ukrainian military has changed its stance on shoes, acknowledging the challenges of walking in heels.
“Walking in the heat on our roads, soldiers risk injuries, damage to shins, ligaments and even rubbing their feet,” Inna Sovsun, an opposition MP, wrote on Facebook. “Why? To bring to life somebody’s stereotypes about a woman’s sole role as a beautiful doll?”
The photos sparked a wide debate in Ukraine over the adequacy of equipment for women in the Ukrainian army and the army’s more general failure to better integrate women into the armed forces, despite the welcome changes. these last years.
Ms. Sovsun ridiculed the rehearsal in heels as “harmful” and “silly.”
High heels are part of the dress uniform for female cadets worn for formal occasions, but these shoes are not worn with field uniforms.
Maria Berlinska, an activist campaigning for more gender equality in the army, said the purpose of the military parade should be to demonstrate the strengths of the service, but a soldier wearing heels would only do ‘display their incapacity.
“Women, like men, fight with combat boots,” Ms. Berlinska wrote on Facebook. “During the war, many of our daughters died on the battlefield in military uniform. “
Women have been allowed to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces since 1993, and in 2018 the military opened up many combat jobs for them, including gunners on armored vehicles, snipers or infantry commanders.
About 31,000 women serve in the military, or more than 15 percent of Ukraine’s armed forces, a figure that has more than doubled since 2014, according to the military, as Ukraine waged a multi-year war against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.
Yet women have victim of sexual assault and harassment, and researchers have shown that they face gender discrimination and remain assigned to low-paid and low-ranking positions.
A United Nations study of Ukrainian women in the military published in 2016 found that women were required to wear or obtain men’s shoes and uniforms themselves, and were not provided with hygiene products. feminine.
“I have the impression that there are no women in the military,” one woman interviewed told study researchers, “The invisible battalion. “
Another woman said: “All the men I met in the battalion told me that I should be home and have children.
Anna Kvit, a Kiev-based expert on gender equality and co-author of the study, said conditions for women have improved since the report’s publication. Yet, she added, women still face poor recognition, discrimination and inadequate uniforms and shoes.
Images showing a unit made up entirely of women also sent the wrong message, Ms. Kvit said, in which women were isolated in the military and separated from men.
“Beyond the heels, this is utterly ridiculous, and against Ukraine’s promises to integrate women into the military sector and promote gender equality,” Ms. Kvit said.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a Facebook post Friday that other countries require military women to wear heels, and that the dress code comes from an official decree in 2017.
But on Saturday, Andriy Taran, the Minister of Defense, said during a visit with the cadets that “improved” and “ergonomic” shoes would be made available “as soon as possible”.
“It is just embarrassing for military women to walk in such shoes,” the Defense Ministry said in a press release after the visit.
New photos were also released: This time the women wore boots.