Ukrainian women are allowed to flee abroad, men must stay to fight. Is that a privilege, an insult, discrimination or simply an anachronism? In any case, it is not without consequences.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, women and children have been allowed to flee the country. The men should stay away from the Ukrainian government and preferably take up arms as well.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, women and children have been allowed to flee the country. The men should stay away from the Ukrainian government and preferably take up arms as well. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that men and women are given completely different roles and rights in times of crisis. Even if that is at odds with the spirit of the times. Not only do Western countries barely distinguish between men and women in their legislation, but the belief that it makes sense to classify people solely on the basis of their physical sex characteristics is slowly losing ground. But when there is great danger, we forget about it and it seems normal that not only children, but also women are immediately brought to safety. Isn’t that what we always do when a ship, proverbial or not, is in distress? No. The ‘Mock Birkenhead’ The ‘women and children first’ principle first appeared in the history books in 1852. The British steamship HMS Birkenhead, which brought new troops to South Africa, crashed near Cape Buena Hope. against the rocks. In addition to the soldiers, there were also 26 women and children on board. As soon as it became clear that the ship was going to sink, Captain Robert gave the order to Salmond to help them into the lifeboats first. Ultimately 445 of the 638 on board would perish, but all the women and children survived the sinking. Soon “women and children first” was dubbed the “Birkenhead exercise” and glorified as the epitome of courtesy, self-sacrifice and discipline. Especially when women and children were given top priority to board a lifeboat in the Titanic disaster 60 years later. 70 percent of the female passengers were rescued, compared to 20 percent of the men. Titanic Mainly due to the imaginative epic of the Titanic, we have come to believe that the principle of ‘women and children first’ is an unwritten law. In practice, however, the ‘Birkenhead exercise’ is applied most of the time. A Swedish study of shipwrecks between 1852 and 2011 shows that in most cases there is little courtesy. Women are more likely to be invaded than rescued in lifeboats. If it doesn’t occur to the captain to yell ‘women and children first’ at the crucial moment, then the women have a much lesser chance of survival than the men. According to the researchers, this is partly because they tend to be less powerful swimmers, and they are also not as aggressive. A poignant example was the Costa Concordia disaster, a cruise ship that capsized off the Italian coast in 2012. Instead of making sure the women and children could escape first, the captain ran away. After that, it was each to his own. Male passengers violently pushed women and children aside. Just as it is often the case in fires, natural disasters, or other circumstances where a large group of people must be able to escape quickly, now a war is different from a shipwreck. If only because your chances of survival don’t depend so much on how fast you can run or swim. It is not always clear why women are often evacuated along with children during armed conflict. Sometimes statements are made that are very outdated or even downright sexist. That the men can only really focus on the battle when they know the woman and child are safe, for example. The argument that women are (or can become) mothers does not carry much weight either. Of course it is true that we should not send children off alone, but there is no immediate reason why, once they no longer need breast milk, it is better to be accompanied by their mother than by their father. In addition, it is very rare that only mothers have the opportunity to get to safety with their young. This generally applies to all women. Whether they have children or not, other possible reasons are less easy to take off the table. There is little objection to the fact that vulnerable citizens must be brought to safety as quickly as possible. No one will argue that children belong to that group. But the women? It is true that they are generally less physically strong than men, who have more muscular strength and muscle mass. Usually anyway, because of course there are also very strong women. In any case, it must be true that the average man has less trouble carrying heavy weapons and taking recoil from him. Although the many Ukrainian women who have decided to stay and take up arms show that it does not have to be an insurmountable obstacle. Also, you can’t win a war with muscle alone. Mental toughness is also crucial, and there is no reason to believe that men would have any advantage in that area. Their more limited muscular strength is not the only reason that women are often classified among the vulnerable civilians in times of war. Studies of armed conflicts around the world show that in many cases women suffer more than men in a war situation. They face more dire living conditions, malnutrition and serious health problems. Furthermore, they are much more likely to be victims of sexual violence, which is sometimes used as a weapon of war in conflict zones. That is why NGOs have been advocating for years to systematically remove women from war situations, so there are arguments that legitimize the principle of ‘women and children first’. The only question is how effective the approach is in practice. There is no doubt that it significantly increases the chances of survival of women. But that doesn’t mean there are fewer deaths. It is not women who are most at risk of dying in armed conflict. The majority of civilian casualties are almost always adult men. This, of course, also has to do with persistent stereotypes. In the eyes of the enemy, men represent a much greater threat than ‘innocent women’. The repercussions of this became apparent during the war in the former Yugoslavia, among other things. After the women and children were evacuated from the besieged areas, the remaining men were often executed. Such was the case in Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Muslims were captured and killed by the Bosnian Serb army in 1995. Almost all the victims were men. According to American political scientist Charli Carpenter, author of Innocent Women and Children, the most vulnerable group in times of war consists of unarmed adult men. Should we then evacuate them while their wives go to war? Of course, no. But we had better be aware that politeness in times of war can have unforeseen consequences. Or as a passage about the heroism of HMS Birkenhead in an old British history book says: ‘Fortunately all the women and children were saved. We will never know how many men’s lives that cost.