“Feminists about the war” is a series of informal feminist talks. First-hand testimonies and thoughts of women active in civic activism before and during the full-scale Russia’s invasion are equally important as reports about political decisions.
In this material, you can read the conversation in text format. Also, you can watch the podcast with English subtitles on our YouTube.
Ukrainian scholars abroad: why this is not a vacation? How do researchers work with the topic of the Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine? How is war already influencing the level of domestic violence in Ukraine? And why is it important to strengthen the positions of the Ukrainian feminism in the western discourse?
In the 5th episode of the podcast ‘Feminists about the war’ our guests:
Marta Havryshko — historian, gender scholar, feminist activist, member of the international research group ‘Sexual violence in armed conflict.
Olena Strelnyk — sociologist, gender scholar, feminist activist, author of the book ‘Childcare as work: a sociological perspective on mothering.
Marta Chumalo — feminist, human rights defender, co-founder and psychologist in the Center ‘Women’s Perspectives’ in Lviv
Olena Strelnyk: Greetings! First of all, I would like to thank Feminist Workshop for bringing all of us here together and giving us a space to share our worries. First of all, let’s briefly introduce ourselves to our listeners. Allow me to begin. I am Olena Strelnyk, and prior to the beginning of the full—scale war, I was a scholar. I’m a sociologist, and my main area of expertise is gender studies.
Marta Havryshko: I am Marta Havryshko, I hold a PhD in History. Main focus of my studies is sexualized and gender violence during war and genocides. I am currently working on a book on sexualized violence perpetrated during the Holocaust on the territory of Ukraine. I am also a member of the international research group “Sexual violence in armed conflict”. Before the war, my main affiliation was with the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Lviv. In January, I was appointed to the other position, which I will elaborate on later.
Marta Chumalo: I work in the Center “Women’s Perspectives”, my name is Marta Chumalo. That is an NGO that has been working in Lviv for 24 years. I offer psychotherapeutic services to the women affected by violence. I also address the problems of the system that, in my opinion, should better cater to the needs and rights of women in Ukraine and all over the world.
Full-scale war and new challenges at work
Olena Strelnyk: What has changed in your activities since the beginning of the full—scale war? Marta Havryshko, would you like to start?
Marta Havryshko: Thanks, Olena, sure. On the eve of the war, I returned from yet another scientific internship in Munich. In January, I was appointed Interdisplinary Studies Institute Director at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Actually, I was getting ready to move to Kyiv to work. I was developing various projects, consulting with my foreign colleagues. These were unique projects aimed to enhance Holocaust studies, various educational programs on the history of Holocaust in Ukraine… And I was also planning to organize dozens of events regarding gender aspects of the Holocaust and WWII studies.
Unfortunately, war has greatly influenced these plans, as our Center had to completely reorientate its activities. We are now fully focused on humanitarian aid — we help the women affected by violence, help those who are most vulnerable during the war, that are in need of medications, in need of food. We evacuate people from the war zone, and we also protect cultural values in Ukraine.
That’s how my work is now connected to what I always wanted to show in my public presentations: how Russian propaganda, the ideological machine of the war, instrumentalizes the history of Holocaust in this war to justify massacres perpetrated by the Russian soldiers in Ukraine. That’s why in my work it’s important for me to speak up about how Jewish sites are affected, how vulnerable is cultural heritage in Ukraine, how vulnerable are all Ukrainian scholars, including those engaged in Holocaust studies.
As I was getting ready to move from Lviv to Kyiv, I realized that it is dangerous for my child to stay in Lviv. And in the very first days of the war, we decided to evacuate from Ukraine. We first moved to Poland, later to Germany where I got an emergency scholarship, and now I am a URIS fellow in Basel university.
Olena Strelnyk: War poses a particularly tough challenge for scholars engaged in social sciences and humanities. When it comes to technical sciences, for instance, their projects can be further advanced. Here, however, the context has changed, and it was virtually impossible to proceed with the topics I had studied before. I mainly focused my research on unpaid reproductive labor, the situation of kindergarten teachers etc. Anyway, now I need to address the theme of war in my research.
One of the projects we had to put on hold due to the beginning of the full—scale invasion is a fascinating one. I hope we will have a chance to return to it this year. These projects focus on the situation of religious feminists and LGBT people in Ukraine. It was implemented by the NGO “Workshop for the Academic Study of Religions”, and I provided consultations, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t finish it on time.
For a long time I struggled to grasp how can we even study this topic, considering that, in terms of science and rational conclusions, full—scale war only lasts a half—year, and it’s too early to draw conclusions. Certain observations can be made, but not enough time has passed to conduct serious research. I decided to study how women are represented in media in the context of war, because one can find a more or less solid body of empirical data, from which one can draw some conclusions.
Of course, it poses an extra challenge for a female scholar. I am a displaced scholar as well. I fled Ukraine approximately one month after the beginning of the war When the Technical University of Munich has offered me a scholarship — there are plenty of such opportunities now — I cried for two days straight, as I never imagined myself being a part of western Academia. And so, I cried for a while, and then I understood that I had to care about children. So, I went to Germany with my two children — however mature they may be, they are still children.
That refugee status is a serious challenge for research. Research requires consistency and stability. How can we talk consistency and stability if for the first 3 months you are greatly stressed, then you are prone to adjustment anxiety and stress that comes along with challenges refugees face: you need to get the documents ready, to find a decent school for a child… I suppose you know what I’m talking about. There are certain challenges and expectations from me as a scholar. I often get invited to give a lecture, to have my work published, but still, there are no opportunities for a stable and consistent academic work.
Marta Chumalo: Just now I was remembering how in the end of February we’ve been planning feminist march in Lviv. Our working group gathered in our office for intense working sessions. We planned what our march would look like, what would happen; we printed different things and so on… On the eve of the full-scale invasion, our organization has already established one shelter for the women affected by domestic violence. We were quite effective in our chosen areas of activity and were actively involved in the advocacy campaigns aimed at the ratification of the Istanbul convention.
Now the situation is such that I stay in Lviv, my children are in Lviv as well — we didn’t leave the city, we stayed here the whole time. Now we already have 7 shelters for women. Every day we saw how Lviv was turning into a transit point of sorts. Women and children that weren’t privileged enough to go abroad settled here. Now, people that didn’t manage to settle abroad return as well. We saw that the conditions created for them were quite harsh. Oftentimes there were common spaces like gyms, basements, semi—basements. And there were plenty of people lying on the mattresses — 20 or more. So we began establishing shelters. Our main goal was to offer better conditions than those offered in Lviv at a time. And we invited vulnerable women, vulnerable in different ways, to our shelters. For instance, we have a shelter for women with more than 3 children — that is quite a big shelter that can accommodate up to 44 people. There is a shower and bathroom in every room, a common kitchen — the conditions are slightly better.
That’s the key idea of our shelters: we don’t provide meals. If there is such a need, we supply our tenants with basic foodstuffs, but it’s up to them what they will cook. But we also have a shelter for elderly women, and if they can’t cook their meals, we help them. Still, that’s an important part of our philosophy: we don’t feed people in our shelters, as it takes away people’s control and power over their lives.
The way we organize everything encourages people to seize control of life as fast as possible, to be able to make decisions, to make future plans… It is not only the accommodation that we offer, we also have a well-established system of such support… We also can offer medical support, psychotherapeutical, and legal support. We have a career counselor that occasionally comes to our shelters. Likewise, we want people to restore that power of theirs.
We want them to rely on their own resources, become independent and self-reliant — for now, that is our main perspective. But overall, the main focus of our activities and the way we work haven’t changed. The amount of work has largely increased, but we expanded the staff as well, giving priority to women that are internally displaced persons. It is thanks to them as well that we continue working.
“I am very afraid that the contributions of many women will be forgotten after the war”
Olena Strelnyk: Generally, within the patriarchal paradigm during the war women are first and foremost perceived as victims, as those affected by war. Or as those that need to be protected, and obviously, it presents a certain challenge for the whole gender equality discourse. Yeah. Do you think this is the case now? What needs to be done in order to change it?
Allow me to speak up first, as I have an article regarding this topic. Among other things, it focuses on women’s agency and how it is represented. Classical, global studies truly identify such tendency: in the descriptions or in the presentations of war, women are typically portrayed as victims.
For instance, there are dozens of different dimensions to the portrayal of women that are affected by war, but Ukrainian media prefer to cover the cases of wartime sexualized violence. Of course, the images of female combatants are far from perfect as well. They often get mixed with traditional ideas of femininity with images of traditional keeper of the hearth and/or sexualized, glamorized images of women in the military.
Still, I realize that the Ukrainian situation is more multidimensional. I mean, I see many good examples as well. Like portrayal of so-called mundane heroism of women doing their job — like the shopgirls working in Irpin under shellings or women working in the evacuation trains, female volunteers, stories of different coping strategies.
For instance, I saw an article about a woman who became a welder to earn some money during war… For me, the question still here: will these stories be enough to significantly influence the gender order? My predictions are quite cautious.
Marta Havryshko: Actually, I can’t help but notice the huge contrast between how women are represented in Ukrainian and in Western media. In Ukraine, women’s portrayals are more diverse, even though they are far from perfect, as you said. I agree that at times they are oversexualized. Sometimes extra emphasis is put on self-sacrifice, sometimes on the victimization instead of the agency. I guess, in part, it is made in order to elicit empathy for Ukraine. It is made by the stories about the experiences of people from vulnerable groups which include women, children, elderly people, female rural residents, disabled people, etc. Western media, however, present more homogenous images and put emphasis on the victimization.
If at the beginning of the war they created dozens of news pieces centering Ukrainian female refugees… Western journalists literally lied in wait at the checkpoints at the Polish and Hungarian borders. They interviewed shocked women that abandoned everything, women holding babies in their arms… For me, it was always an ethical issue — people are stressed, and journalists approach their children, interview them, ask about their experiences etc. I think not everyone was willing to speak up about it.
Western media mainly presented women as victims. These women are refugees, they lost their belongings, their loved ones, they were forced to flee either to Western Ukraine or abroad. Another thing is women affected by sexualized violence. The way Ukrainian officials talked about it is a big part of the problem. Ex-ombudswoman Denysova largely contributed to the media hype this topic got, and her actions became a subject of heated discussions, as they threw doubt on the very existence of victims and their number. Even I felt that, when Western journalists with whom we have discussed this issue, approached me after the ombudswoman’s resignation to ask: so, was it all fake? How many women were there? Was it real or not? And so on…
But I also think that we need to put emphasis on women’s agency and to bring into the spotlight female human rights defenders, such as Marta Chumalo and her colleagues. They put truly Herculean effort into human rights work. Not only do they offer legal help, but also medical services and psychological counseling that is much needed. We also need to talk about teachers of the rural schools, about women weaving camouflage nets, cooking dinners and baking for our defenders. We need to talk about women that have an opportunity to travel abroad more often than man due to the martial law and are now going there to bring back the cars for army needs, that are bringing medical supplies, other needed things. Here in Switzerland, female refugees have established a whole network aimed at helping Ukrainians in Ukraine. They raise funds, they send underwear, they buy everything they can in order to help, in order to increase Ukrainian defensive capability, to help their friends and relatives… I think that these women deserve more visibility.
I greatly fear that the contribution of numerous women, human rights defenders and others, will be forgotten after the war. And women will be unrecognized heroes of the war.
Ukrainian media heavily focus on sexualized violence. It is a hot topic: journalists search for the details that would shock readers, their audience. I think that not enough is said about helping these victims. In Ukraine, there is no systemic-institutionalized help available to these women. When the war will be over, these women won’t receive a medal of honor. No one will feel the need to recognize their sufferings. And I think that it is time to discuss a monument to the raped woman that needs to be created in the postwar Ukraine. This monument will commemorate all victims of the sexualized violence perpetrated on the territory of Ukraine, during all genocides and wars. We know that the Soviet army, other armies, perpetrated sexualized violence on the territory of Ukraine and oftentimes used it as a weapon of war.
Marta Chumalo: I wanted to say that I don’t use the word “victim” while talking of women that are alive. That takes away their agency.
Marta Havryshko: Yeah, it’s better to say “woman affected by violence”.
Marta Chumalo: Thank you. Unfortunately, women and their experiences are regarded as a resource used to prove the guilt of the Russian soldiers. It is very seldom that I see women’s experiences treated respectfully by the state.
There is an ongoing hunt, safari, preying upon alive women affected by war, upon people that work with them. There are coerced testimonies, doctors that are pressured into reporting about women asking them for help. From my point of view, that is but a horrendous situation that retraumatizes women. This system discourages women with such experiences from asking for help, and makes them go into shadow instead.
Now, new facilities are created to help people affected by sexualized wartime violence. But as far as I understand, the primary goal of these facilities is to register, document the testimonies, and to identify as many people affected by violence as possible. In my opinion, this approach is fundamentally wrong and is accompanied by taking away the agency.
Women remain isolated, they keep silent and don’t ask for help, for help which is much needed, and if they do ask for help, then they search for some services anonymously, either for abortion, or for something else. State needs to change the policies — that is the first thing I want to say. Nowadays, it is much harder for women affected by violence to access the human rights services. That includes women affected by domestic or gender-based violence.
It turns out that in the institutions based in Lviv oblast, in the crisis room, in the shelters, in the regional shelter, in the institutions funded from the municipal budgets, there are only a few women affected by violence that have gone there since the beginning of the year. Two or three women per 6-7 months — all other places are occupied by the internally displaced persons, because the demand is huge.
But that means that a woman affected by domestic violence doesn’t get the protection, the much-needed services, and that is a big problem that isn’t discussed enough. In the last few months, we observe an increase in the number of the internally displaced persons reporting the cases of domestic violence. Everyone is stressed, living together with many other people in these common spaces — violence is bound to happen. Oftentimes, a woman is too ashamed to report, as she knows that the police will need to interrogate the witnesses that were nearby. Everyone knows each other, and if the police are to interrogate 20 people, a woman won’t ask for help.
Wounded and shell-shocked men return from war, and we get more reports of domestic violence perpetrated by them. Over the next six months we will be getting more and more reports of violence aimed at women, and already now we have to think of the ways to get the system more sensitive.
“If we move away from russia, then gender issues are just in time”
Olena Strelnyk: What are your personal predictions, expectations, or warnings? How will the war influence the contributions of the Ukrainian feminist movement in Ukraine?
Marta Havryshko: I really hope that this topic will not fade into the background because of the glorification of the army that we all have high expectations for.
But potentially it really can be pushed to the wayside. Much has changed after the research “Invisible battalion” that focused on the discrimination in the military, sexism, on how the legislation didn’t allow women to be assigned to combat positions. Many things have changed over 8 years of war: now there are women in combat positions.
But as on today, female soldiers don’t even get the uniform and properly fitted bulletproof vests, in which they would serve the Motherland. Research made in other armies, in Israel, Canada, New Zealand, and USA, proves sexual discrimination is strong in the army due to the patriarchal essence of the military structures, specific military culture, and encouragement of hegemonic masculinity.
That poses a serious challenge for many armies. That’s what makes me think that the war can influence this discourse. Those criticizing sexualized violence or giving voice to people affected by it may be ostracized or heavily criticized themselves. Society won’t be able to believe that heroes, former or current heroes, are able to commit such things. Women will be afraid to speak up, human rights defenders will be afraid to defend such cases, lawyers, attorneys, and scholars will be afraid to say it out loud.
I am afraid that we may lose a chance to advocate for the full citizenship for LGBT people, for these women that fight for our independence, that need to have access to all the rights and services, currently reserved for men in women in marital relations. I think that all gender-related issues are a bit provocative nowadays. When we follow the discussions under different posts, we see comments like this: “It’s not the right time for this.
Children are dying, people lose their limbs — and you keep speaking of this ephemeral gender equality”. And I think that we need to articulate that if we are moving away from russia, then it is the Ukrainian way. If we are moving toward democratic society, inclusive society, then gender-related topics are perfectly on time.
The voices of Ukrainian feminists must be heard
Marta Chumalo: I think these challenges will gradually gain more relevance, and as Marta says, we see similar processes in the historical context, when during different wars women were taking on new duties and functions, but once the war was over, once again were we penned up in the reproductive cages, as we needed to go away from the positions, we had a chance to get.
On the November 1 Istanbul convention will come into force in Ukraine, and I hope that it will bring changes for the better, as well as enhanced access to the protection of women’s rights and services that are guaranteed by the Istanbul convention. We are already thinking about what we can do.
For instance, I am now at our annual Femen Camp. It is for the sixth time that we organize such gatherings for young feminists, girls under the age of 23, and together we discuss different challenges, different strategies. We empower them so that they would stay together with us and oppose these challenges we can now discuss. I hope that what happens now will receive a proper reaction, and we’ll be able to resist, to take to the streets, to participate in the next events of solidarity, international solidarity. We are now represented so well abroad: our sisters, friends, and colleagues help us a lot.
What I receive is not limited to the letters or words of support: we also have significant help that we get thanks to the fundraising efforts of our Ukrainian feminist colleagues abroad. They do it to make things better for women that are currently more vulnerable. They do it so that our colleagues that are staying will have more opportunities to increase the capacity of the shelters or the opportunity to think what needs to be done to make life easier for women and girls in Ukraine. That’s why I think our fight is not over.
Olena Strelnyk: I am sure that it is our status of candidate country for EU membership that won’t allow such backlash against human rights and gender equality. That’s why I’m sure that anti-abortion petitions may be created and gain signatures, but they won’t be a basis for political decisions in Ukraine.
And the Istanbul convention that was suddenly ratified, whereas we’ve been waiting for it since 2011. It proves the fact that the political influence of anti-gender movements will only decline. Political will be influenced mainly by our newly acquired status of candidate country to EU membership. Earlier our legislation was already progressive in terms of gender equality, and now it will get only better.
Despite that, let’s be frank: all crises, all wars almost always lead to the systemic deterioration of the situation of women, especially those belonging to vulnerable groups. Today we talked a lot about domestic violence, but overall, the gap between gender equality de jure and de facto will only become deeper.
The level of women’s economic activity will decrease primarily due to the lack of the kindergartens — not all of them meet the safety standards, internally displaced persons live in many schools and kindergartens — that issue is relevant for now. In the long run it will lead to the widening of the gender pay gap, that’s inevitable. The widening of the gender salary gap as well. Before the war it stood 32%, and it will be widening further. Women will become more vulnerable to violence, as we all know that a woman’s economic dependence on a man is a powerful factor of domestic violence.
There is yet another challenge for feminism: much was achieved, but now we have to face the fact: today conscription and military service is HIS duty, but HER right. Once, people were saying to the feminists: if you support gender equality, why don’t you join the military? These are obviously trivialized interpretations of gender equality, but now we need to consider this fact when elaborating on the topics of gender equality and feminism in the society where the majority of men are prohibited from leaving the country.
I am well aware of the fact that discussion about conscription, discussion about reshaping the state of security (maybe, it’ll be the Israel model?) calls for a particularly delicate approach. Because we can’t simply change the security system without taking into account other components of the gender order.
In other words, if both parents go to war, who will care about their children? Now Ukrainian feminists, particularly female scholars that went abroad, have a terribly important mission — they need to strengthen the positions of the Ukrainian feminism in the discussion with the Western feminism.
We already observe plenty of concepts divorced from Ukrainian reality — and there are attempts to monopolize the discourse with these concepts. Many feminists’ principles get questioned now — empathy, sensitivity to context, sensitivity to privilege. Why are certain voices louder than the voices of Ukrainian feminists? That’s why I think it is our big task: we need to form a powerful global alternative that would be based on the principles of the feminist solidarity.
Marta Havryshko: Ukrainian voices get more recognition, and from the discussions with my feminist colleagues I realized how our approaches are different. When talking to them, I need to explain that the needs of Ukrainian women are different from the needs of the Western feminists, especially intellectuals. I need to explain that first, Ukrainian women need safety, but they also need not have the stories of their sufferings to be instrumentalized by Western media.
Olena Strelnyk: Dear Marta and Marta, it was my great pleasure to meet you and to discuss all of these challenges. Once again, I want to thank Feminist Workshop for organizing our discussion.
Marta Havryshko: Mad props to all our human rights defenders, our activists that stay on the territory of Ukraine, that didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to get a scholarship, to go to study and whatnot — and are still working here. Marta, thank you a lot.
Marta Chumalo: Thank you, Marta, I was glad to meet you! Thank you, Olena.