A painting by British street artist Banksy is seen on a building destroyed by fighting in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine. The painting shows a woman doing a handstand, apparently on the wreckage.
A painting by British street artist Banksy on a building destroyed by fighting in Borodyanka, Ukraine. | Photo: © AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko

Gender Equality in Times of a Full-Scale War on Ukraine: A Hope for a Better Future?

The work on promoting gender equality in Ukraine continues even in the time of full-scale war, proving that the times of crisis could be used as an opportunity for a positive transformation. Tireless efforts of civil society and its prominent allies in politics have already had some fruits in keeping the topic in the public discourse, updating the National Action Plan (NAP) on UNSCR 1325 ‚Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS), and the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention).

On the 24th of February 2022, Ukraine was forced to engage in asymmetric warfare. One year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has demonstrated the strength and determination of Ukrainian society to protect the independence and sovereignty of the state before what used to be assessed as the second strongest army in the world. It is the continuous advocacy work performed by state officials, servicemen and -women, academics, artists, and civil society representatives coupled with military successes in liberating the previously occupied territories that have resulted in growing international support for the resistance. A lot of this work has been conducted by women and for women, as protecting independence goes hand in hand with protecting and fostering the gains of gender equality. Some feminist scholars highlight that times of crisis, and particularly wars, might potentially pose a threat of patriarchal backlash (see Enloe, Cockburn). Others stress that the state of transition might also become a unique moment for reimagining the division of public and private and its gender underpinning (see O’Rourke). Countering the possible backlash requires, above all, shedding light on the continuous feminist work on the ground, so that the contribution of women to the resilience of the country is known and accounted for. This text aims to add to the cause by outlining some of the milestones in gender equality work taking place in the past year in Ukraine amid the full-scale war. Some of the most prominent examples of such gains are women being vocal about gender equality work both at the state level and locally, the adoption of the updated NAP, and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

Women in (Everyday) Politics

Promoting gender equality at the state level implies having women in politics visible and recognizing their active role in ‘everyday’ politics. Ukraine met the full-scale invasion in 2022 ranking above average in Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI): 0.707 compared to 0.681 average. The distribution of the four sub-index scores in Ukraine generally aligned with the international mean numbers. The country slightly overperformed in three sub-indexes: health and survival, educational attainment, and economic participation and opportunity. However, it noticeably lagged behind in the political empowerment of women. Despite the fairly low presence in parliament and in ministerial positions, a number of high-level politicians in Ukraine doing advocacy work have been women. Some of the names known to many in Ukraine are the following: Olena Zelenska (First Lady of Ukraine), Iryna Vereshchuk (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories), Hanna Maliar (Deputy Minister of Defense), and Kateryna Levchenko (Government Commissioner for Gender Equality Policy). Since the full-scale invasion, the First Lady has been outspoken about the need to promote gender equality and to combat gender-based violence (GBV). As an official responsible for negotiating prisoner swaps, Iryna Vereshchuk famously stated that “We refuse to hold an exchange with no women in the list”. Being the only woman among six deputy ministers, Hanna Maliar always highlights the high presence of women in the military and their role in defending the country on equal grounds with men. Kateryna Levchenko is involved in all gender policy-making. Most notably, she was the one who supported civil society’s initiative to update the second NAP (2021-2025) and ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2022. The big names are backed by numerous women undertaking important roles in conflict management and peacebuilding on the ground. The full-scale invasion has led many women to become leaders and agents of change within their communities, contributing to humanitarian solutions, joining military units, designing policy specifically related to gender equality and human rights, generating solutions for reconstructing the country and ensuring lasting peace in Ukraine. Civil society and governmental representatives combine their efforts through establishing networking platforms, such as Feminist Forums organized regularly since the full-scale invasion.

WPS: Updating the NAP Amid the War

Ukraine has become the first country to update the NAP during a full-scale war. The past year has amplified the relevance of the WPS agenda in Ukraine. The full-scale invasion violently disrupted the implementation of the second NAP, urging revision of the Plan. The reasoning behind the update was to make it more responsive to the changing context. As explained in the document, it is namely due to a number of factors. Firstly, a significant number of people have been displaced, constituting approximately 1/3 of the population, most being women with dependents. Second is increased workload for women related to care work for children and other family members because of displacement and disrupted social infrastructure. Thirdly, a growing number of women veterans due to increased number of women in military occupations. Additionally, a high incidence of GBV (326 000 statements as of 2021), which may point to an established tracking system but also to the prevalence of the issue. Women are disproportionally affected by combat-related sexual violence (CRSV), which has found its reflection in adding distinctive tasks in the updated NAP. Next is the absence of an effective mechanism for identifying and monitoring of potential security challenges and their gender aspects on a regular basis. Finally, significant obstacles to the implementation of WPS at present, such as a lack of knowledge and skills among NAP implementers, limited human and material resources, and limited technical support. Consequently, each of the five strategic and operational goals and key objectives was updated: (1) women’s participation in decision-making; (2) resilience to security challenges; (3) post-conflict recovery and transitional justice; (4) combating GBV and CRSV; (5) strengthening the institutional capacity of the National Plan implementers.

The update has been enabled by the ongoing efforts of civil society and particularly women’s rights organizations (WRO) in monitoring and implementing the NAP, the decisiveness of the many activists, and by close cooperation between civil society and the government. The work to cover the variety of issues was launched shortly after the full-scale invasion. The written reasoning for amendments was first provided by the Women’s Information Consultative Center (WICC) in April 2022. The initiative received support from other WROs, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy and her office, and the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Olga Stefanyshyna. On the 6th of May 2022, an online inception meeting for NAP revision was organized. A series of online-meetings followed in June–August, bringing together more than 200 participants from both government and non-government sectors. The developed suggestions were forwarded for adoption in August 2022, meaning that the immense work was done in less than six months after the full-scale war started, while many experts were themselves experiencing the effects of the war. On the 16th of December 2022, the updated NAP was adopted. It is now expected that local action plans, addressing context-specific challenges, would be adopted by mid-March 2023.

Istanbul Convention: Long-Awaited Ratification

More than ten years after signing the Istanbul Convention, Ukraine had it ratified on the 20th of June 2022. While the ratification took place amid Ukraine’s commitment to accession to the European Union, it has been years-long advocacy of civil society that has facilitated the event. The 8th of March marches in Kyiv and Lviv in 2022 were planned to be held specifically in support of the ratification. The saying “[if he] beats [you] means he will go to jail” (developed as a word game on the proverb of ancient Russian origin “if he beats you, it means he loves you,”) has been a widespread message on the marches in preceding years. Moreover, Ukraine has been holding an annual Campaign, “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence”, as part of international efforts to raise awareness of the issues of domestic violence, human trafficking and child abuse, GBV, and to make a call to ensure equal rights for women and men.

Some practical steps towards combating GBV have been made in the meantime. In 2017, upon approval of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National police of Ukraine in cooperation with UNFP launched a pilot project, “Polina”, to establish a network of police mobile groups reacting to GBV in selected regions. The project has since extended its geography proving to be timely and well-received. Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association, “JurFem”, points out that the adoption of the Law on Ratification is only a first step in ensuring the protection of violence survivors. Current legal framework on domestic violence is said to be lacking coherence and effective mechanisms for realization and must be addressed in the first place. Moreover, JurFem experts emphasize that apart from GBV, the Istanbul Convention covers CRSV, which makes it even more relevant for Ukraine at the moment.

Work in Progress: Holding to the Feminist Stances

Enhancing gender equality is a work in progress. There is no country with a perfect GGGI. Doing this work while the country resists the ongoing attempts of Russia to conquer its territories and target civilian infrastructure makes it even more of a challenge. Thus, while the presence of women in the military in Ukraine is one of the highest among NATO member states, they are still lacking uniforms that would fit female body types and female hygiene products, and often have to rely on volunteers’ help. While the relevance of WPS for Ukraine might seem obvious to feminist scholars, one of the key challenges to its implementation, recognized in the very updated NAP, is the lack of knowledge and skills by the implementers. Advocacy for introducing sex education at schools as part of the discourse on combating GBV has so far been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the struggle continues. And so, online petitions have been launched to demand the creation of appropriate conditions for women serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the introduction of compulsory sex education in the Ukrainian education system in 2022. The former has by now received enough votes to be submitted to the President’s office. Raising awareness of WPS is encapsulated in a number of projects conducted by Ukrainian NGOs, such as the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, WIIC and others. Overall, witnessing the continuous feminist work in Ukraine during a year of full-scale war gives hope for a better future. A hope that the moment of crisis could be used not only to protect but to enhance gender equality on the ground.

Hanna Manoilenko

Hanna Manoilenko

Hanna Manoilenko ist Pre-Doc-Forscherin am Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ der HSFK. Ihre Forschung konzentriert sich auf die Art und Weise, wie Geschlecht und Krieg in der Ukraine miteinander verwoben sind. // Hanna Manoilenko is a Predoctoral Researcher in the research department “International Security” at PRIF. Her research focuses on the ways in which gender and war are intertwined in Ukraine.

Hanna Manoilenko

Hanna Manoilenko ist Pre-Doc-Forscherin am Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ der HSFK. Ihre Forschung konzentriert sich auf die Art und Weise, wie Geschlecht und Krieg in der Ukraine miteinander verwoben sind. // Hanna Manoilenko is a Predoctoral Researcher in the research department “International Security” at PRIF. Her research focuses on the ways in which gender and war are intertwined in Ukraine.

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