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Ukraine sees surge of female fighters

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ABC News

(KYIV, Ukraine) — By now she’s gained a few nicknames; from “punisher of Russians,” to the “Ukrainian Joan of Arc.”

Eugenia Emerald has become somewhat of an icon in Ukraine, fighting on the front lines as a sniper — the only woman in her unit.

She’s one of more than 50,000 women now enlisted in the Ukrainian army.

“All Russians are scared of us,” said Emerald. “Afraid of me, afraid of us. Ukrainian women.”

Women on the front is still a relatively recent phenomenon in Ukraine. As of 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, women were still barred from combat roles. It wasn’t until 2018 that female soldiers were finally given the same status as men — and, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, women now account for close to a one-fifth of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Emerald’s said her father taught her how to use a weapon. She later enrolled in a military program in college, and when war broke out in February, the army called her up to see if she’d be willing to fight. As a single mom, Emerald said she made the difficult decision to leave her 11-year-old daughter behind. She’s been everywhere now — from Kharkiv and Zhytomyr, to Bucha and the battle for Kyiv.

But she says being a woman on the front has its fair share of challenges: battling both the common enemy and internal discrimination. Emerald recounted how one man she came into contact with told her a woman’s place was not on the battlefield, but in the kitchen.

“I was angry, really angry,” she said, adding she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. “But they respect me later.”

It’s something Anastasia Kolesnyk, who enlisted on the first day of the war, said she has also had to deal with.

“You always have to prove yourself,” she said. “When you meet the new division, they need a couple days to get used to you, and the fact that you are the same as them.”

Anastasia says she’s not surprised so many Ukrainian women have enlisted.

“The only option I had was to enlist,” said Anastasia. Because when a murderer and a thief come to your house, you don’t just run away– you try to protect it. And everything was at stake.”

The surge of female soldiers is so new that Ukraine’s military still doesn’t have standard uniforms for women — meaning they’re often handed ill-fitting men’s clothes.

“In the beginning, it was very cold — I had to wear my sneakers, because there were no military boots available in my size,” Kolesnyk said. “And the uniforms were two sizes too big,” she added.

So she asked her brother Andrii and his girlfriend Kseniia Drahanyuk to send her the items she needed — and after the two realized just how much gear Kolesnyk was lacking, they created the Zemlyachki nonprofit to help other female soldiers. They’ve now helped over 3,000 women, sending them over $1 million worth of care packages that include things like lighter body armor, tampons, smaller shoes, and fitted uniforms, Kolesnyk said.

As Emerald showed us her gear — and the uniform that was in fact once too big for her — she also stumbled upon her wedding dress.

Because in the middle of the fighting, Emerald also found love — another soldier, in another unit, who read an article about her and reached out on Instagram. The two married on the battlefield, near Kharkiv.

Amid all the death and destruction, Emerald is now carrying new life — she is pregnant with a baby girl.

“You know, my first daughter — she is like a princess,” she said. “But I think my second daughter, yes, she will be like me. And if she wants, I will teach her [how to] shoot.”

She says as hard as it would be to leave her two daughters now, she would eventually like to head back to the front.

“Ukrainian women are very strong, and all of us love our land,” she said, adding it’s precisely because of her daughters — and their future– that she risks it all.

“It’s the reason I go to war,” she said.

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