Although women are massively affected by the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, they are disproportionately underrepresented in conflict resolution efforts. A lack of female participation in peace negotiations can jeopardise the sustainability of peace agreements. It is therefore crucial to involve more women sooner than later.
A Comment by Ann-Sophie Gast
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists, who are allegedly backed by the Russian government sending weapons and paramilitary soldiers, has received strong media coverage. The war which developed after the Euromaidan protests against the suspension of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in November 2013, has claimed approximately 31,700 casualties, thereof 9,553 killed, and has left more than 3 Million Ukrainians in need of assistance. Both ceasefire agreements, Minsk I signed in 2014 and Minsk II signed in 2015, have failed as parts of Donetsk and Lugansk still remain under de-facto control of Russia-backed separatists while the daily shelling continues. However, peace talks in Minsk carry on despite the little progress on the ground. But unfortunately women have been disproportionately underrepresented and play only a minor role in Ukraine’s peacemaking process.
Women’s Burden in the Conflict
In most armed conflicts, women next to children, elderly people and people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Not only do women in conflict-affected areas suffer from direct military consequences, they are also victims of instability, human trafficking and gender-based violence. Despite restricted access to war zones, NGOs and UN agencies report arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture, travel restrictions and conflict-related sexual violence. Moreover, the level of domestic violence, which was already very high in Ukraine before the war, has been rising further in conflict-affected areas as male soldiers returning home are often traumatized and face difficulties coping with their war experiences.
During wartime, women are the main caretakers of families but suffer disproportionately from the economic consequences of conflicts such as the lack of access to labor opportunities, social services, education, medical care, humanitarian assistance and childcare. Women also constitute 63% of around 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDP) in Ukraine and are therefore seriously affected by restricted mobility and limited access to productive assets. Furthermore, female IDPs have been reportedly victims of sexual violence, forced prostitution and sex trafficking.
Underrepresentation of Women in Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Ukraine
Even though women are often disproportionately affected by wars, they are usually widely underrepresented in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, which constitutes a major obstacle to a legitimate and sustainable political settlement as well as to the creation of a more equal post-war society. Peace negotiations in Ukraine are no exception in this regard: in the Normandy contact group, Angela Merkel is the only woman among 8 heads of state and foreign ministers. The trilateral contact group, which includes the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine, too is heavily male-dominated.
This pattern does not differ much at lower negotiation levels. The Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the OSCE includes only 106 (15%) females out of 689 international monitors. However, while the mission has employed gender advisors and established gender focal points in the field, a gender perspective has to be mainstreamed in all activities of the mission and thus more women should be hired. Underrepresentation of women is also an issue at the domestic level in Ukraine as only 12% of parliamentarians are women and it is the Verkhovna Rada taking many conflict-relevant decisions.
The Global Picture
The exclusion of women and the lack of gender mainstreaming in conflict resolution is of course not only a problem in Ukraine. Women are heavily underrepresented in peacekeeping, police and monitoring missions on a global scale. While peacekeeping has to be distinguished from peacemaking, a study by UN Women on the participation of women in 31 peace negotiations between 1992 and 2011 found that only 4% of signatories, 2.4% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators were female.
Those numbers are disastrous given the fact that peace agreements are more likely to persist in the short and long term if women were involved. As conflicts affect women in different ways than men, women’s experiences and views on conflict prevention and peacebuilding should be incorporated in every step of peace negotiations. Only by including needs and priorities of men and women, a sustainable and legitimate resolution can be achieved. Because a political settlement can only last when both men and women know that their experiences and interests are mirrored in the agreement.
Seizing Opportunities in Ukraine: Using the Momentum
Even though Ukraine is in turmoil and the war is still causing victims on a daily basis, the conflict resolution process and the societal impact since the Euromaidan protests offer opportunities for change. Not only does Ukraine have a vibrant civil society compared to other states in the region, but there is also a number of engaged female politicians who made the quest for gender equality as part of their agenda and founded the Equal Opportunities Inter-Fraction Union of the Ukrainian Parliament.
The Revolution of Dignity (that’s how Ukrainians call it) prompted deep social changes and a rupture in Ukraine’s development, as it lasted longer and included more people than any other national movement ever before. Violent actions of the government against protestors have sparked the formation of a large volunteer movement and a general feeling that change is possible. Ukrainians now have the chance to move away from a condition where gender equality is only a buzzword towards the acceptance of gender equality as a societal issue and basic human right, which contributes to fairer, more efficient and more prosperous societies.
Profound Changes are Necessary – The Future is Now
The goal is to achieve a more equal society where a gender-sensitive approach has to be mainstreamed through all parts of the conflict resolution and reconciliation process, which means that any action including legislation, policies and programs should be assessed for both men and women. Their concerns and experiences are pivotal to the peacebuilding process, covering the official mediation process, peacebuilding activities by civil society as well as trauma work, capacity building and human rights work.
On a domestic level, the National Action Plan for UNSCR 1325 has to be implemented by women involved in peacebuilding and in decision-making at the national, regional and international level. Women’s organisations also need financial and ideological support. Furthermore, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women should finally be ratified and gender-based violence and crimes should be consequently brought to justice. Last but not least, the protection and representation of IDPs must be strengthened. Also, the OSCE SMM should increase its female staff and lead by good example.
It is now that the ground for an inclusive reconciliation process and a more equal and fair post-war society is laid.
The project Beyond the Protocol – Women and International Politics in Germany and Ukraine focuses on three aspects: gender equality in general; women, peace and security; and women in international politics and diplomacy. Specific issues are further discussed in this blog series.
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