NewsWomen miners in Ukraine Stepping up during wartime crisis

Women miners in Ukraine Stepping up during wartime crisis

Women do not perform heavy physical labour underground, but without them coal mining in Ukraine would not be possible.
Women do not perform heavy physical labour underground, but without them coal mining in Ukraine would not be possible.
Images source: © Licensor | Maciej Stanik
Tatiana Kolesnychenko

1 July 2024 08:48

I can replace you in the mine if you must go to the front. My husband looked at me with pity: "You'll last at most three days." But I knew that if I didn't change something, I would go crazy from all the waiting.

Descent

Victoria will remember her first descent underground for the rest of her life. She stood in front of the lift, feeling her legs give way beneath her, her heart pounding, and the darkest thoughts swirling in her head.

The metal lock snapped shut with a bang. The engine roared, and the lift began descending to a depth of 370 metres.

Victoria took a deep breath. Where was this fear coming from? After all, she had listened to stories about working in the mine her whole life—first from her miner father, then from her husband. She dreamed of seeing what work underground looked like, but Ukrainian law prohibited women from working in "harmful or dangerous" conditions. The only exceptions were educated female engineers, geologists, and surveyors, who could work at the lowest levels of the mine.

The Russian invasion turned everything upside down. Mobilisation hit labour sectors far more than office jobs. When men went to the army, women began to take on their roles – they became miners, locksmiths, and truck drivers. They performed heavy physical labour, causing a quiet cultural revolution.

Wiktoria has just defended her degree in psychology, but for now, she does not plan to leave the mine.
Wiktoria has just defended her degree in psychology, but for now, she does not plan to leave the mine.© WP | Maciej Stanik
Currently, 160 women work in the mine.
Currently, 160 women work in the mine.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik
In the first three months of the Russian invasion, 400 miners from the mine joined the army.
In the first three months of the Russian invasion, 400 miners from the mine joined the army.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik

Prestige

Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. A sleepy town of 30,000. Rows of low, grey apartment blocks. Wide streets and sun-scorched lawns.

Life has followed a set rhythm since the mine appeared here in the 1960s, followed by a mining village that later expanded into a town. On average, buses picked up shifts of miners every six hours. Weekends were spent at mine bases on the Azov Sea, and holidays were on the Crimean Peninsula.

On the seventh day of each month – on payday – local bars were crowded. And on the last Sunday of August – Miner's Day – an amusement park and Ukrainian pop stars came to town. Add bonuses, Barbórka Day, and other benefits to that list.

From her childhood, Yevhenia most remembers her father's returns from the mine. At home, he was greeted almost like a hero. A distinguished miner working at the forefront. He always had a sweet for her and an even tastier story. Sometimes, a blood-curdling tale about a landslide they narrowly escaped – hence the scratches and scars on his face. But more often, he told about the mischievous jokes experienced miners played on the rookies, like putting coal in their shoes.

Yevhenia's favourite stories were about the miner's ghost, Shubin, who appeared to warn of danger. In her imagination, the miner's profession was forever imprinted as almost half-military, dangerous, and challenging but prestigious. And the miners themselves were brave and daring people. It was an enticing world reserved exclusively for men.

Every boy had two options. The first, obvious one: follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers (like Yevhenia's brother did). The second is to leave the town.

But as a girl, Yevhenia had even worse prospects: getting married and becoming a housewife. Or working at the mine, but only on the surface, on the conveyor belt, or as a cleaner, earning two to three times less than men underground.

The roles were assigned, and the rhythm was set in stone. Then came the year 2022. Suddenly, no men were left, and women were ready to take their places.

Women have always worked in the mine, but only on the surface and for significantly less money.
Women have always worked in the mine, but only on the surface and for significantly less money.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik
Jewhenija dreamt in her childhood of seeing what underground work is like.
Jewhenija dreamt in her childhood of seeing what underground work is like.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik
Many miners volunteered for the army, while others were conscripted.
Many miners volunteered for the army, while others were conscripted.© WP | Maciej Stanik

Return

There is coffee and biscuits on the table. We will have a tour of the mine's history museum and a brief safety briefing before going underground.

Meanwhile, Inna Kobozova, the elegant HR manager of the mine, explains: "Everything happened suddenly. Many of our employees volunteered for the army after the Russian invasion began. In the next three months, mobilisation continued. By April 2022, we had lost 400 of our 2,800 miners."

The mood was gloomy, and Ukraine's future looked bleak. They were bound—90 kilometres to Avdiivka and the front line in Zaporizhia Oblast.

"We were afraid that soon there would be no hands to work, and at the same time, we couldn't stop production. Because coal mining during war becomes one of the elements of national security," says Kobozova.

Production plans remained unchanged. As a result, shifts were extended, and fewer and fewer people did the same work. In March 2022, the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada suspended the law prohibiting women from working underground.

That's when the mine began considering hiring women for traditionally "male" positions. The idea was not new. In 1943, when the Donbas were liberated from German occupation, it turned out that there was no one to revive the mines. The men were still fighting on the front. Many returned injured, and others were killed.

At that time, the Soviet authorities launched a campaign encouraging women to work at the front lines. Restoring the mines and coal extraction would have been impossible without their efforts.

Kobozova's parents worked in the mine from its founding in 1965. They remembered well when women and men descended underground together. Only in 1973 did Ukraine change its labour code.

The ban on underground work was meant to protect women from hard work and its consequences, but it had one significant flaw – in small mining towns, it practically made them financially dependent on their husbands.

This time, Ukraine was not in the desperate situation it was post-World War II. Displaced persons from war-torn towns in the Donbas filled some front-line positions. Meanwhile, positions requiring not so much physical strength as attention and responsibility were to be filled by women. Operating the belt, the lift, and diesel locomotives – the same jobs women had always done on the surface but for significantly lower pay.

The offer was attractive: a six-hour workday, a salary of £260-£320 (approximately £220-£280 in the national average), and early retirement after 20 years (7.5 of which must be worked underground). The biggest concern was whether it would be acceptable in a small town where an established pattern had operated for years.

"A woman underground, in the dust and dirt, is not a pretty sight," says Kobozova.

Tetiana knew that if she didn't change something, she would go mad from stress.
Tetiana knew that if she didn't change something, she would go mad from stress.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik
At the beginning, miners struggled to accept the presence of women underground.
At the beginning, miners struggled to accept the presence of women underground.© WP | Maciej Stanik
Many miners believed that women underground would bring bad luck
Many miners believed that women underground would bring bad luck© Licensor | Maciej Stanik

Escape

The response was swift. More volunteers came forward than expected. For some women, like Yevhenia, working underground was a continuation of family tradition, a forbidden fruit they could now reach for. For others, it was a forced necessity.

Before the invasion, Anna was a mail carrier in Hirske in Luhansk Oblast. She delayed her departure for a long time, but in May 2022, the shelling of the town was so intense that life became hell. She packed her belongings into a few bags and left for western Ukraine with her two young children. There was no work, renting a flat cost a fortune, and her savings dwindled. She was desperate, ready to take any job, even underground.

36-year-old Tetyana worked at the mine as a caretaker. She cleaned and prepared work clothes. Every day, she watched miners rush in, change clothes, and then return to the surface covered in coal. Tired but smiling, she watched as they returned to the surface covered in coal.

Tetyana's husband was also a miner, but in February 2023, he announced that he was volunteering for the army. She stood frozen. She cried, begged, and then declared: "If you go to the front, I will go to work underground!"

He looked at her with pity: "Better stay at home, you won't last three days underground."

But Tetyana persevered. She knew that if she didn't occupy her mind with something, she would go crazy. Her husband would soon be at the front near Avdiivka, and she would constantly wait, check, and worry.

Before the women start working underground, the management organises a trip for them to see the conditions.
Before the women start working underground, the management organises a trip for them to see the conditions.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik

Tour

So many women were willing to work underground that the mine management decided to conduct a preliminary selection.

"Ukrainian women are very confident, but working in a mine is not for everyone. We decided first to take them on a tour underground," says Kobozova.

There were 28 women in Tetyana’s group. The descent by lift was to a depth of 370 metres. The air was humid, both warm and cold. Dust particles sparkled in the beams of headlamps. The manager explained: "Here’s the belt; there’s the front. Watch your step. Never leave the rescuer behind. The mine is high-risk, with high methane concentrations. There have been explosions and landslides. Last year, there was a fire."

And here are the evacuation ladders. One uses them to get to the surface in case of a breakdown or blackout. Such accidents have happened. In December last year, the Russians bombed power stations, and the entire mine was without power. Miners walked 9 kilometres and then climbed the ladders 170 metres up. Like going up to the seventh floor."

The manager spoke, and the enthusiasm waned. After returning to the surface, some women immediately gave up. Others signed up for theoretical classes but did not take the exam. Of the 28, only 15 started working, and half gave up in the following months.

During the day, Anna covers eight kilometres underground.
During the day, Anna covers eight kilometres underground.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a discussion about the need to limit coal extraction.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a discussion about the need to limit coal extraction.© WP
Anna often gets migraines from the dust in the mine.
Anna often gets migraines from the dust in the mine.© Licensor | Maciej Stanik

Bad luck

Tetyana did not feel fear; she was determined. But the first days at work were not easy. Miners maliciously: "Why are you even pushing yourselves underground?", "A woman in a mine is like a ship – brings bad luck" "You won’t last here; you’re weak." And they went to complain to the manager: "Why do we need women underground? They’ll sit, whine, and get in the way."

The manager was himself embarrassed. With 25 years of experience, it was the first time he had to train women. But he dismissed the complaints: "They are here to keep the mine working."

Tetyana tried her best. She is responsible for the belt transporting the ore. Theoretically, she only has to push a button and monitor it. In practice, she constantly tightens and fixes things. When the belt is turned off, she helps the miners. She carries and lifts.

The day flies by. In the afternoon, she returns home. She is so tired that she doesn't even have the strength to eat. She falls into a deep, heavy sleep. She wakes up suddenly. Then, the worst begins. She reads the news from the front and wonders why her husband didn't contact her yesterday. Every day, he sends her at least a short message. Sometimes, it's just a plus sign that he’s alive. This time, silence.

  • Miners
  • Female Miners
  • Dmytro, Wiktoria's replacement, thinks that women should not work underground.
[1/3] MinersImages source: © WP | Maciej Stanik

All dolled up

A village a few miles from the mine. A one-storey house with blooming irises in front of the fence. Victoria is bustling around the summer kitchen. Soon, a cake and homemade raspberry liqueur are served on the table.

She was scared the first time she descended underground, but she returned home excited. She told her husband: "When we returned to the surface, I thought: is that it for the tour? It wasn't that scary, like going down to the basement!"

Ivan, a miner of 15 years, took his wife's decision to work in the mine calmly.

"How can I be against it when I work there myself? Some don't like it, but the times are such that men are scarce, so it's normal for women to occupy their positions. Without their work, it would be tough for everyone."

Before the Russian invasion, Victoria worked in a nursery school. She wanted to develop in that field and studied psychology. But in 2022, most schools and nursery schools closed, and she was unemployed for a year. A job at the mine significantly boosted the family budget.

Victoria wakes up at 4:30 AM. After a quick coffee, she gets all dolled up: "Men notice everything. They ask if I'm ill if I come to work without make-up."

She is on her feet all day in the mine. Victoria operates a diesel locomotive. It's not complicated, but she has to attach wagons, rerail derailed ones, and switch track settings with an 8-kilogram key.

Then she rushes home. Her husband is just getting ready to go out for the fourth shift. They pass each other in the doorway—a kiss. See you later in the evening.

  • Wiktoria and Iwan have two children: a 9-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.
  • Wiktoria never works night shifts because her daughter is afraid of the shelling. Russian kamikaze drones often fly over their house.
  • Wiktoria and Iwan got married just after her hundred days party.
  • Wiktoria believes that her work contributes to Ukraine's victory.
  • Children in front-line regions are learning remotely due to the risk of shelling.
  • Ivan supported his wife when she said she wanted to work underground.
[1/6] Wiktoria and Iwan have two children: a 9-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.Images source: © Licensor | Maciej Stanik

Obituary

It took a few months for the miners to get used to women underground. Victoria’s veteran colleague Dmytro grumbles under his breath: "It's the 21st century, and women are working in mines!" But he treats her with respect.

Tetyana is also satisfied: "They saw that women can work equally and let go of the malice."

Especially since the town says goodbye to miners killed on the front every month, her husband's name almost appeared in an obituary. A drone hit the windscreen of their car. The guys had their legs shredded, and he lost the left side of his face. She found out four days later that he was in the hospital, unconscious.

"He will live. That’s the most important. He has no eye so that he won't return to the war or the mine. But I am at peace. I have him by my side, and I will somehow support the family," says Tetyana.

Market

At this moment, the mine employs 160 women underground.

Similar quiet revolutions are taking place in other "male" industries. While job offers almost disappeared from services at the beginning of the invasion, now there are more than in 2022. Many sectors are so short of people that employers describe their situation as "the worst in history."

Members of the 128th Carpathian Assault Brigade of the Ukrainian Army
Members of the 128th Carpathian Assault Brigade of the Ukrainian Army© East News | AA/ABACA

They increasingly direct offers to women, providing free training to prepare them for jobs as locksmiths, truck drivers, combine drivers, and boiler operators. For the first time, a woman will become a train driver in the Kyiv metro. The number of female soldiers in the Ukrainian army has increased from 14,000 in 2014 to 45,000 in 2024, with 13,600 actively fighting on the front lines.

"Women will never completely replace men's work underground, but they have blended so well into the team that we already see it will be hard for us to give up their work even after the war ends," says Kobozova.

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