Ukraine needs women to win the war – and the peace

Women are vital in the war effort - but better female political representation will be needed to rebuild Ukraine, argues Trisha de Borchgrave.

The World Today Published 3 February 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 4 minute READ

Trisha de Borchgrave

Freelance journalist

‘A Ukrainian woman can do anything.’ These words from Maryna Popatenko, Ukraine’s deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, capture the critical role women have had to play as their country has come under attack from Russia.

Speaking to Ukrainian women from government and civil society, their position is clear. If the country is to emerge from war as a strong democracy and accede to the European Union as it wants, it must recognize this emerging role for women and use it to improve its record on gender equality.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a Ukrainian MP and head of the EU Integration Committee, tells how a ‘diplomatic battalion of five to seven women diplomats’ were deployed to capitals across the world to discuss sanctions against Russia. At a time when men between 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country, these women delivered President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request for military hardware and humanitarian assistance.

Women are now fighting on the battlefield as well. Given equal fighting status with men in 2018, women today make up to 22 per cent of Ukraine’s armed forces, although their numbers on the front line remain small. This compares with NATO countries such as France, where women make up only 15 per cent of the armed forces, in Germany and Spain 12 per cent and in the United States 17 per cent.

Female skills

They bring particular skills with them. Yevgenia Zakrevska, a lawyer and now senior drone operator, describes how she has established better horizontal lines of communication across platoons and between commanders and soldiers of different units, all of which helps ‘the tactical decision-making of our commanders’.

Women also play a key role in protecting families fleeing the fighting. With the real risk of sexual exploitation or human trafficking, women are trusted more readily when it comes to registering those internally displaced by the war, a number currently put at more than 4.5 million. They organize transport to take the displaced to safety in neighbouring countries, and female psychologists are providing mental health counselling after the First Lady, Olena Zelenska, launched a programme of psycho-social support with UN agencies.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer, is the director of Kyiv’s Centre for Civil Liberties, which shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. She and her team have spent the past eight years documenting some 28,000 Russian war crimes in Ukraine, from murder and torture to rape. She describes Russian treatment of Ukrainians as showing ‘genocidal intent’.

Ukrainian women remain a minority in positions of state-wide decision-making

Despite their contribution to the war effort, Ukrainian women remain a minority in positions of state-wide decision-making. About 21 per cent of the national parliament’s elected deputies are women, up from 12 per cent in 2014. This is far lower than other countries such as France, with just over 37 per cent, Germany with 35 per cent, Spain with 47 per cent and Sweden at 46 per cent. Finland has a ruling coalition of five women-led parties headed by the Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

The Ukrainian government has the same proportion of women in its cabinet (five out of 24) as in the chamber of deputies. This is low by European standards, although it includes Yulia Svyrydenko, the First Vice Prime Minister and Economics Minister, and Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories.

Klympush-Tsintsadze says more women are needed: ‘There is definitely more masculine decision-making at the top level, meaning women’s voices are not decisive.’

How women create peace

Unless this happens, women’s input will be missing in any negotiations to end the conflict. When women do not participate, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Colombia, the durability of peace deals decreases by 15 years, according to a 2015 report by the Institute for Peace.

Ukrainians are already looking to a future free of Russian interference. Political leaders are calling for international support to finance the reconstruction of the country – a cost estimated at between $350 billion and $750 billion and rising.

Ukraine is not very good at building sustainable democratic institutions

Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of Kyiv’s Centre for Civil Liberties

A recent poll suggests that more than 90 per cent of Ukrainians are willing to put up with the cold, dark terror of Russian assaults for two or three years if, in the end, they are guaranteed EU membership. The EU’s seven membership requirements include reforms of Ukraine’s courts and the establishment of anti-corruption laws and monitoring platforms to protect against money laundering and the capture of state assets, all of which the government struggled to meet before the war.

In a November 2022 poll by Chatham House, 89 per cent and 83 per cent of regional and national civil society groups, respectively, identified the embezzlement of funds as the biggest risk when rebuilding the country. New appointments to anti-corruption institutions have yet to be made amid signs the process has languished.

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As part of a recent anti-corruption drive, there have been more than a dozen government resignations, including Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy Head of the Office of the President, and Oleksiy Symonenko, deputy Prosecutor General. Five regional governors have also been sacked. An over-reliance on the male-led security forces when the fighting is over increases the risk of a reversion to old-style patriarchal advancement or further conflict.

Female leadership correlates with low levels of corruption

Matviichuk admits that Ukraine’s ‘bottom-up culture has done well fighting authoritarian regimes but it is not so good at building sustainable democratic institutions’. A politically weak Ukraine, with high levels of corruption, will be prey to future attacks and the West may hesitate to continue to support its independence.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime found clear correlations between female leadership and low levels of corruption. This is because a society with high levels of gender equity signals a country of strong institutions, such as a free press and healthy judiciary. Matviichuk argues that a greater female role in government would indicate that ‘democratization and justice were running concurrently with today’s fighting’.

Ukraine’s women ‘must come home’

But increasing female participation faces another challenge as 90 per cent of those who have fled the fighting are women and children. ‘Ukrainians are hard-working, well-adjusted people and will find their places in other societies, but we need them to come home,’ said Klympush-Tsintsadze.

Iryna Yarmolenko, a young mother from Irpin, a Kyiv satellite town heavily damaged in the first weeks of the war, is now based in Paris and part of an active diaspora coordinating rebuilding projects. They are helping design a redevelopment model that it is hoped can be copied across Ukraine.

But if Zelenskyy’s New Year’s call for Ukrainian women like Iryna to return is to be heeded, they must be given positions of responsibility in policy-making. Ukraine must strengthen its democracy for EU accession now. As Matviichuk and others argue: ‘Without women’s efforts, the problems will just be postponed, and nothing will change.’