Ukraine has become one of the first countries to launch a National Action Plan (NAP) of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) during a localized armed conflict and to update it during the full-scale invasion of the country. This blog unveils some of the ways that gender and war are intertwined in Ukraine while discussing the role of the WPS agenda.
There are manifold ways in which women are engaged in war. These engagements are usually reduced to two main perspectives, firstly, recognizing women’s gendered vulnerability and portraying them as victims in need of protection; and secondly, seeing them as actors of change, having the agency broadly manifested in leading the response to humanitarian crisis, serving in military formations, and shaping policy-making. Such gendered roles might intersect and change in the course of a war. Women in Ukraine fall under both categories, forming the largest proportion of people displaced by the war together with their dependents and disproportionately experiencing combat-related sexual violence (CRSV). Women are also taking leading roles by becoming the heads of households, responding to a humanitarian crisis, as well as joining the military resistance to the Russian invasion. The everyday work of women in Ukraine is accompanied by legal amendments, aiming at encompassing how gender and war are interrelated and what kinds of interventions are needed to incorporate the gendered experiences in policy-making.
Women as Victims of War
The armed conflict on the territory of Ukraine started in March 2014 with the Russian-led military contestation over the Eastern part of Ukraine, commonly referred to as Donbas, and the preceding annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the south of the country. The localized conflict has left approximately 1.6 million people displaced mainly within but also outside the country and many more affected (UNHCR 2021: 19). Russia’s full-scale invasion on the 24th of February 2022 has led to the displacement of over 13 million people, which accounts for approximately 30% of the population (IOM, May 2022). Most of the people fleeing have been women with dependents, meaning children, the elderly, and people with disabilities in need of assistance (Rapid Gender Analysis of Ukraine, 2022: 10). Some of the women fleeing abroad have started returning to Ukraine due to issues with housing, financial insecurity, a need to support the family in Ukraine or receive support in caregiving, which falls under the umbrella of a change in the perception of the security situation in their home country (CEDOS, May 2022). Members of the host communities in Ukraine also experience hardships related to the lack of holistic security, particularly given the continuous Russian airstrikes and the constantly present nuclear threat. The situation is arguably even worse for people staying in the temporarily occupied territories. Russia has refused to prolong the mandate of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, leading to obstructions in the documentation of human rights violations in the non-government controlled territories. The extent of the atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces became visible in liberated cities, such as in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Izum. Horrific cases of CRSV are being reported predominantly with regard to women but also children and men. Even though on May 3, 2022, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Ukrainian government aimed at combating and preventing sexual violence in wartime, the missing legal definition of the CRSV in Ukraine and lack of access to the occupied territories makes it impossible to provide comprehensive assistance to the survivors there.
Women’s Leadership in the Response to the Humanitarian Crisis
Since the very beginning of the full-scale invasion many of the immediate first responders to the unfolding humanitarian crisis have been local women-led organizations and initiatives (Rapid Gender Analysis of Ukraine, 2022: 6). Local activists helped people evacuate, including people with limited mobility (Fight for Right, September 2022), distributed medical supplies and food, often with their own resources – while risking their own lives, as one of the stories from Donetsk and Luhansk regions suggests:
“We take people from Kramatorsk to Dnipro, fuel cars there, and pick up humanitarian aid… On the way back, carrying medicine, clothes, crockery and food, we are under fire… At the beginning of the evacuation, substantial aid was provided by the locals. Now they also have a shortage of everything.” (April 2022)
The delivery of hygiene products and emergency birth control in severely affected areas, as well as areas under Russian occupation, was largely organized by young women activists, members of grass-root initiatives, such as FemSolution, Bilkis, FeministLodge, that continue doing humanitarian work until now. Despite increasing importance of women at the community level, they are still not fully involved in decision-making around humanitarian programming (Rapid Gender Analysis of Ukraine, 2022: 6). As of May 2022, only 0.003% (4.4 million EUR) of the humanitarian aid funding was received by the national civil society organizations, while the largest part was received by UN agencies, which were sometimes not even physically present in the country and lacked efficient mechanisms to distribute the funds among the local organizations (Enabling the local response 2022: 11, 16).
Ukrainian Women in Armed Fighting
In daily speeches to the population the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, always includes words of gratitude to the defenders, men and women. The gender-sensitive addressing clearly reflects the prominent presence of women in the AFU. In line with the president’s choice of words, on March 8, 2022, the State Broder Service of Ukraine has celebrated the fight for women’s rights and women’s participation in the AFU in the official greeting. Currently, approximately 50 000 servicewomen are employed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, with 5 000 of them being at the frontline. Even though the precise estimate is not revealed, military officials claim that women currently make up nearly 22% of the AFU, which is one of the highest presence of women in the military among NATO member states. The right of women to join the military and occupy combat positions has been a result of a strong advocacy campaign, happening under the umbrella of the Invisible Battalion – an advocacy project that started as sociological research. Subsequent public opinion surveys demonstrated growing support for granting women equal opportunities with men to work in the AFU and other military formations (Martsenyuk 2022). Apart from fighting for their right to be allowed to do military service on equal grounds with men, servicewomen in Ukraine also perform advocacy visits abroad, asking for more precise and rapid support for the AFU. This allows claiming that Ukraine has clearly stepped out of historically dominant forms of gendered citizenship of the ‘citizen-mother’ and ‘citizen-soldier’ that attach women’s experiences to the private domain and those of men to public life.
The WPS-Agenda in Ukraine: Updating the NAP in War
As a comprehensive framework, the WPS agenda is aimed at encompassing the manifold experiences of women and girls outlined in 4 main pillars: participation, conflict prevention, protection, relief and recovery. The agenda incorporates both women’s vulnerabilities before the war and the agency needed to ensure sustainable peace.
Ukraine adopted its first NAP in 2016, two years into the war. The process of its preparation has been initiated by civil society and received support from the government. The first NAP (2016-2020) has mainly resulted in carving a path to recognizing the importance of the WPS agenda as a national approach to address the specific gendered needs and potential of women and girls as political actors in contributing to building a sustainable peace. Having established some regional coalitions for the NAP, localization has also facilitated the process and the adoption of the extended second NAP (2021-2025). However, Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 abruptly disrupted the plan. In a highly symbolic way, the two-day inception meeting of initiatives of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund on localization of the second NAP that was to be held on February 23-24 could not be finished due to safety concerns. Nevertheless, upon the initiative of the Government Commissioner for Gender Equality Policy in Ukraine and in close cooperation with civil society, the second NAP is currently being updated to fit the emerging needs of the war-affected population, and particularly for women and girls. While the updated NAP is yet to be presented, some regional coalitions have lately started meeting the representatives of the local administrations and strengthening their networks, as is the case of Kharkiv regional coalition. In addition, trainings on localization and monitoring of the NAP have started taking place.
Given that civil society representatives, including feminists, and women from the defense sector have been heavily involved in the process of updating the NAP, it is particularly important to maintain interest in its implementation. Will the introduced changes incorporate the multiple involvements of women on the ground? What challenges will there be to the localization of the NAP in Ukraine given the ongoing military aggression by Russia? What lessons could be learned from the Ukrainian case of updating the NAP during the war? While all of these questions are yet to be answered, the efforts of hundreds of women in shaping gender policy-making in the country under military aggression should be supported both financially to help implement the NAP in the war-affected country, and symbolically, by keeping the topic on the international table. Last but not least, none of the feminist policy-making or the everyday feminist work on the ground would be possible if Ukraine as a country has no means for self-defense.
For the implementation of the WPS agenda and enhancing gender equality in Ukraine certain recommendations can be formulated for the international community:
(1) Amplify women’s voices on the ground, both civilians and servicewomen, by providing political platforms. The struggles and contribution of women in the resistance to the Russian invasion have to be made visible through also media coverage of their work and experiences. These stories have to be heard to be remembered;
(2) Engage and support civil society, particularly women-led and women’s rights, and LGBTQI+ rights organizations/initiatives directly instead of only large international organizations. It is crucial to provide local women’s initiatives with flexible and easy-to-access funding and other support, such as infrastructure, information, and contacts to both the organizations/initiatives that have stayed in Ukraine and those who have moved abroad;
(3) Provide funding and encouragement to the Ukrainian government representatives to implement the NAP, such as by inviting government and civil society representatives to international WPS events as speakers;
(4) Provide all means possible to enable Ukraine to defend its independence and democracy, including the continuous arming of Ukraine;
(5) Prevent Russia from having the tools and resources to continue attacking Ukraine by imposing effective sanctions, and support an embargo on buying Russian gas and oil.