Where are the Ukrainian women? Respecting female voices now and in post-war times


Míla O'Sullivan

April 4, 2022
“This conflict, as represented in international media, it almost never speaks about women as agents. We don’t see the hundreds of thousands of women who locally work with IDPS, refugees, those who need help right now. They are not mentioned in international media.” — Maria Dmytryeva, Ukrainian feminist activist

The Russian invasion of Ukraine tragically continues with brutal shelling of civilian targets, escalating into a humanitarian catastrophe. At the forefront of all this is the masculinity of war which caused these horrors in the first place, and which allows for ignoring the voices of Ukrainian women at all levels. Against this background, national security is gaining prominence in Europe as strengthening of the defence systems appears inevitable. Any new spending on Europe's hard security, however, should not go at the expense of but hand in hand with an immediate and long-term international support for human security, women's participation and socioeconomic security as pledged in the Women, Peace and Security agenda. It is now most urgent to focus attention on agencies of Ukrainian women for understanding how the war is deeply gendered and ensuring their diverse voices are included now and in post-war times.

Gendered Silences

The absence of women in international politics amid the war rhetoric of recent weeks has been striking. Already prior to the war, women’s voices have been missing from the negotiations with Russia for a peaceful solution to the conflict with Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, exclusion of women’s voices has multiplied. It is as if there were no countries with feminist foreign policies and WPS Action Plans and other instruments of the international community. Gendered silences are apparent also among security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE, which have been among the key drivers of Ukraine’s WPS agenda. Amidst the reality of war and masculine power politics, voices of Ukrainian women are suddenly silenced. These silences are happening as Russia is sending rockets toward any possible targets that women traditionally represent: schools and kindergartens, hospitals, including children’s and maternity hospitals, and other populated areas. Ukrainian government continues to report about killing of civilians, including children, as well as cases of women being raped and murdered by Russian soldiers. Given Russia’s warfare history such as the one in Chechnya, these brutal tactics might well be seen as a deliberate gendered strategy to suppress and humiliate Ukraine by directing war violence towards the population.

Russia’s Hypermasculine War

Russia’s ongoing unjustified acts of violence in Ukraine can be seen as a performance of the extreme masculinity (in other words, hypermasculinity) of the Russian state which was created by Putin to facilitate his hold on to power but which has become the very feature and behaviour of the gendered state itself. This masculinity has relied on articulation of traditional femininity through attempts to promote traditional values, including international efforts carried out through Russia’s anti-gender ideology crusade. In his speech on 24 February 2022, Putin justified the invasion by connecting it with the protection of these Russian values: “they sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people, from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.” Putin accuses others of doing something that he uses in his own strategy. That is to say that the similar Russian efforts to erode countries west of Russia from within have been rather successful. Most of the Central and Eastern European states, including Ukraine, have refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, as they faced transnational anti-gender movements supported by Russia, among other actors. In Putin’s imagination, Ukraine is part of this traditional ‘Russian world’ and he is now using the patriarchal logic of power to demonstrate it.

Respecting Women as Agents

International community already has instruments to counter Russia’s hypermasculinity by prioritizing the feminist agenda and voices of Ukrainian women. This is crucial for understanding and highlighting the gendered dimension of the war. Beyond some attention to Ukrainian female soldiers, however, Ukrainian women’s agencies are almost invisible. The traditional gendered images of war still prevail, with men governing, negotiating and fighting to protect women and the nation, and women and children going to safety. This interpretation strengthens the masculine culture, which does not sufficiently respect women as agents, and which in turn leads to their exclusion and the post-war deterioration of their position.

It is also apparent from the stories of Ukrainian women that women’s agencies are largely overlooked by the international community. The enormous engagement of Ukrainian women can be seen in the military and medical care, as well as in the media, politics, peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands of women collect and distribute aid among the regions under constant threat of bombing and work with internally displaced people. Every day, they leave their children and families and continue to work for peace and freedom of their country. They have immediate information about the situation on the ground, whether it is the lack of medical supplies or Russian crimes against the local population. Their experiences and voices are thus key for recognizing the warning signals indicating that the war may further escalate. It is already clear that Russia has breached bilateral agreements and international conventions, targeting civilians in a brutal manner that includes rape and murder. People live in constant fear because no one knows what will come tomorrow. There have also been first reports of human trafficking for the purpose of forced sex work on the Polish and German borders, which requires urgent preventive measures. Such measures, as the Bosnian experience taught us, should be implemented through learning from and listening to the voices of local women and international feminist NGOs.

Now and Long-term and Not as an ‘Afterthought’

Governments, international organizations and civil society, as well as the media, should start listening more to the voices of Ukrainian women and raise their agencies in order to avoid horrific scenarios of events like those of the recent Balkan wars, such as gender genocide or large-scale trafficking in human beings for the purpose of forced sex work. Understanding the war as gendered is also fundamental for women’s meaningful participation now and in post-war times. Laura Sjoberg’s feminist thesis says that wars start earlier and go on longer than traditional interpretations identify and war is thus a gendered continuum.

In the context of Ukraine, this thesis implies that the gendered impacts of the eight-year conflict and the simultaneous state reforms, such as the increase in gender-based violence and socio-economic inequalities, are gaining entirely new massive proportions. If we start to respect Ukrainian women as agents and listen to their voices now, and not later as an afterthought, there will be support for gender-responsive peacebuilding in the long-term post-war period.

Earlier version of this articles was issued in Czech on 8 March 2022 as part of analytical reflections on the Russian invasion of Ukraine published by the Institute of International Relations Prague.