“Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’”, and Ukraine is no exception

The Unwomenly Face of War is the title of the book by Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, published in 1985, a product of thousands of hours of interviews with women who served in the Soviet Army during World War II. Svetlana Alexievich spoke to women who worked in every possible role in the war including snipers, nurses, pilots, tank drivers, foot soldiers, surgeons and partisans.

She has said: “Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’” and that “I wanted to write a history of that war. A women’s history.”

While it may come as no surprise that women’s stories and perspectives from this time were neglected, one would have thought that by 2022 we would have reached a certain level of gender equality where we would document events in a more inclusive way. That does not seem to be the case, at least not in international media’s coverage of conflicts. In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, and international media have taken on the unfortunate role in promoting hyper masculine war narratives, gender stereotypes and manifestations of racism.

The current war in Ukraine has three key leaders, each of whom uses a different approach to the current situation. But what do Zelensky, Putin and Biden all have in common? They are men – political leaders who represent very different versions of masculinity.

Women, on the other hand, are not represented among the top political leaders and constitute only 23 percent of the total experts, protagonists or sources quoted in global digital news about the war in Ukraine, according to an analysis of the GDELT news monitoring database. This does not diverge much from the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) data, which has shown that news paints a picture of a world in which women are virtually invisible. Women are dramatically under-represented in the news, with only 24 percent of them serving as news subjects and sources.

When women are portrayed, they are often portrayed as victims or bystanders and rarely speak for themselves. The image of a bloody pregnant woman from Ukraine and her unborn child is only one of many examples of viral news stories dictating an overall narrative of women’s victimization. Whilst these stories are critical and deserve to be heard as they ultimately are documentation of human rights abuses, it is important to consider how they are being told, the involvement of the subject and the angle. The stories about women fleeing with their families are not necessarily only stories about victims, but also about women being active agents of their families, their communities and their nations, bringing them from fragility to stability. And women are not only seeking refuge. As a matter of fact, women form around 15 percent of total military personnel in Ukraine, many of whom are serving on the frontlines. Not to mention the courageous women reporters who choose to stay in Ukraine to provide vital information from the hotspots. Their stories are rarely heard.

Men are also victims of the war and hypermasculine stereotypes they are supposed to live up to. The majority of the military force constitutes of men, and if you are a man in the age range of 18–60, you are not able to leave Ukraine, according to the law during wartime. The point of this text is not that women are more affected than men. The point is that women are affected differently because of gendered dynamics and other grounds of discrimination.

The latest reports of rape highlight women and girls in conflicts being particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. The United Nations has now demanded an independent investigation into rape and sexual violence in Ukraine, after allegations Russian troops committed such crimes during the continuing invasion of the neighbouring country. The discrimination is also intersectional in its nature with reports of discrimination against people from the LGBTQIA+ community, such as transgender women being stopped at the borders, not being able to leave Ukraine. Other amplified gendered dynamics stem from the loss of access to healthcare, education, food, water and sanitation. While the data, brief testimonials and UN reports are published, the stories from the individuals behind the statistics are seldom heard. Journalists must actively reach out to individuals and carefully craft these stories.

Women of colour have been giving testimonies of racism and hostility from the Ukrainian military when trying to flee, and at the border people have been divided into two groups: those who were white and those who were not. The international news coverage is also often, simply stated, racist. One example is the quote in international media, from CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata, that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” When former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine said in a BBC interview: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair…being killed every day,” the BBC host simply replied: “I understand and respect the emotion”, instead of questioning the comment. International media allow this narrative to spread, and few or no efforts are being made to create counter narratives.

The issue of lack of inclusive coverage is not only principally wrong and against international standards but also lays the foundation for other unintended, negative consequences. In the short term, independent media coverage helps inform policy-makers decisions on military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. When reporting is framed by a male perspective, it can magnify the bias that already exists within government and multilateral institutions that are dominated by male leadership.

Svetlana Alexievich’s observation that everything we know about war we know with“a man’s voice” unfortunately still holds true – and from a longer-term perspective, the participation of women in public debate during and post-conflict is proven to be crucial for peace negotiations and to contributes to long-lasting peace. Platforms must be created to amplify the voices of women and the region’s most deeply affected communities: members of civil society, especially women and other vulnerable populations. This is one of many aspects which will be critical in the long-term for any prospects of peace for Ukraine.

Recommendations for media covering Russia’s war in Ukraine:

  • Engage in gender media monitoring to keep track of who is represented in your content and in what capacity.
  • Be careful not to replicate stereotyping in which you simply view women as passive victims and sufferers. We also need to report stories that reflect women’s courage, leadership, resilience and healing and their roles as agents of change and peace building.
  • When covering gender-based violence, utilise best practices, ethical standards and resources that support a survivor-centred approach.
  • Focus on underreported, misreported and unreported forms and targets of violence, including with marginalised communities.
  • Make use of databases of women experts on various topics — or create your own.
  • Revise your editorial guidelines to make sure that a gender perspective and inclusivity are included.
  • Consider introducing an equality editor. This is a self-regulatory mechanism created specifically to tackle gender inequality in media content. The New York Times (USA) and El País (Spain) are examples of pioneers of this tool.
  • Conduct a gender audit of your internal work to make sure that you have a diverse workforce and identify the gender gaps in your organisation — a diverse workforce is more likely to produce pluralistic content.