I started writing this text about 4 weeks into the pandemic. As I finish it, many countries, including my own, are slowly lifting the quarantine measures and reopening the economy. As I look back on what these few months have been like for communities—and especially women—in conflict-affected Ukraine, I reflect on what a sustainable and feminist transition out of the pandemic could look like.
I live and work in Ukraine, which has been engaged in an armed conflict since 2014. It is the only country implementing a Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan during the ongoing conflict. Over the last six years my work has been focused on addressing the effects of the conflict on communities, especially women, through dialogue and bottom-up advocacy. In this post, I will share my thoughts on behalf of many women all across Ukraine, including the Women’s Network for Dialogue and Inclusive Peace, which brings women’s civil society organizations and initiatives on both sides of the contact line to promote sustainable feminist peace.
Ukraine—like all countries in the world—has been facing a number of common challenges which are exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the east of our country. The number of internally displaced people is currently around 1.5 million, and 58% of those are women. The population of the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk consists largely of the elderly people, who as we know, are most at risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. At this point, there is very little the Ukrainian government can do because it has no access to these territories. Women peacebuilders have been drawing attention to the need for humanitarian assistance, including medication, for the people living in temporarily occupied territories. Still, despite UN Secretary General António Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire, which was supported by many local and international organizations, the violence in eastern Ukraine has continued and in some cases has even worsened.
As women activists, we know that war and emergencies exacerbate existing inequalities and threaten the security of the most vulnerable populations, especially women and girls. Bringing these issues to light and addressing them is part of our daily work. The gendered dimensions of the pandemic in Ukraine and women’s responses to the crisis occur at the individual, community, and state levels.
First, at the individual level, women have taken on the majority of domestic and emotional labor while their families are under stay-at-home orders.
The majority of women are playing significant roles at home – 78.9% of women have been involved with homeschooling their children according to a recent gender impact assessment conducted by UN Women Ukraine in March 2020. They are also providing emotional labor—listening with empathy, creating calm, and managing conflicts—within their families and communities.
Women’s organizations have also been providing emotional support and care to communities, sharing information about emotional well-being and stress management, and distributing essential supplies. We are also calling attention to this labor, which is uncounted and unpaid. It is the reproductive and care work, mostly done by women, which lays the ground for holistic security and sustainable peace.
Second, at the community level, women face economic vulnerabilities and difficulty accessing services.
Many Ukrainian women have been unable to access health infrastructure, especially in remote regions and villages. Moreover, the majority of those responding to immediate needs—in health, service, and other essential industries—are also women. They are thus most at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Women are also more vulnerable economically, as they constitute the majority of small business owners. We have also started to see major violations of the labor rights of women as both businesses and the public sector are more inclined to lay off women due to budget cuts, or women are forced to take unpaid leave—remaining officially “employed” but financially vulnerable. Economic vulnerability will be a more prolonged risk for women, even after the quarantine is over. My colleagues and I talk to women in communities about security, and they tell us that apart from shelling, the thing they fear most is not having enough income to provide for their families. This was true when the conflict in Ukraine started, and it is still true today. Most of the internally displaced women do not own property anymore because they were forced to leave their homes behind, and many are now struggling to pay rent.
Gender-based violence is also a pandemic inside the pandemic at the community level. The women we speak to always list freedom from violence and abuse as integral components of a safer world for them. Unfortunately, as in many places around the world, the numbers of registered domestic violence cases have skyrocketed as a result of stay-at-home orders, almost doubling during the first month of the pandemic. Some women who separated from their abusive partners are now moving back in with them due to economic insecurity, exposing themselves again to the risk of domestic violence. Yet, the priorities of the government agencies do not reflect the needs of women. After the quarantine measures were set up, the police invested more effort into monitoring violations of quarantine at the expense of responding to cases of domestic and gender-based violence.
Third, at the state level, representatives from civil society—and particularly women’s groups—have not been included on decisions regarding the government’s official response to the crisis.
The national-level crisis response group, consisting of 17 people, only includes 2 women. Lack of gender-sensitive analysis and sex-disaggregated data prevents informed decision-making and policies both in the short- and long-term. On May 11th, the first major quarantine measures were lifted, which allowed for small businesses in the service industry to reopen, and lawyers, dentists, and psychologists have been able to return to work. Schools and kindergartens, however, remained closed for another month. Who thought about all those women lawyers, hairdressers, psychologists, and many others who were going back to work, and where were they expected to leave their kids? Only after public protests and an online campaign for reopening the childcare facilities were kindergartens allowed to operate again at the beginning of June. This, to me, is a perfect illustration of what happens when nation-wide decisions are made by people who are not engaged in care work.
As I think back on the last 6 years of my work and the relentless work of my colleagues, I feel both proud and angry.
As women peacebuilders, we are praised for our capacity to respond to crises effectively. We are called “resilient,” and that is true—we are resilient. I have seen women mobilizing to respond to the consequences of war in Ukraine since 2014, and I am incredibly proud. As the unprecedented global pandemic hits us, we are called to be resilient, again. And this is where my anger rises. Yes, women can save the day, as they have done before. But what if that’s not what we want, or rather, not what we really need? You see, despite its attractiveness, the notion of resilience can be deceptive. While framed as a positive capacity to deal with crises, it can actually serve to hide inequalities. As stated in an article I read recently: “Resilience can be appealing to governments and business leaders because it works to preserve what’s already in place, rather than challenging existing power structures”
As a woman-peacebuilder, I don’t want only to respond to emergencies. Instead, I want to put a system in place that can effectively prevent crises and conflicts: a system that creates the foundation for lasting peace and human security for all, and ensures that communities—especially those most marginalized—get sufficient support if and when a crisis hits.
Here are some recommendations on how we can set up a new system, together.
1. Women must take an equal and meaningful role in all decisions regarding the response to the pandemic. And the key is: women must be involved now. Post-conflict agreements are much more likely to include the needs of women if women are involved in shaping those agreements. The same holds for national action plans, crisis response mechanisms, and budget allocations. Women must be at the table when resources are distributed and priorities are set.
2. Our response must integrate an intersectional gender perspective. Putting an equal number of men and women at the table may be a necessary first step, but it does not ensure that the needs of different groups, especially those facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, are seen and considered. Intersectional feminist analysis must become an integral basis for decision-making, especially in responses to conflicts and crises. We must increase capacity for gender-smart policy analysis, as described by Cynthia Enloe, and strengthen the government’s accountability for its integration.
3. When we talk about security in the present moment and post- COVID-19, we must talk about economic and labor rights and the economic empowerment of women. Without it, we cannot ensure real equality and bridge the existing divides. Potential policy responses are complex and include addressing the pay gap as well as lifting the burden of the unpaid labor for women, transforming gender stereotypes, and providing workers the ability to protect their rights via trade unions and other forms of collective organizing. Holistic security for women is not possible without economic security.
4. A feminist security response makes freedom from gender-based violence a priority. Over three months of quarantine, the women’s movement in Ukraine mobilized for an online campaign to collect signatures for the petition to ratify the Istanbul Convention. The ratification of the Convention will provide a systemic infrastructure for responding to gender-based and domestic violence.
The women’s movement has been successful in collecting the necessary signatures, and received an official response from the President, where he confirms the urgency of the issue. A draft law is currently being written for submission to Parliament, which, if voted on, will allow for the ratification of the Convention. We continue to put pressure on the government and the parliament and raise the matter in the media. We know that the religious lobby is strongly advocating against this law at the same time, also appealing in their arguments to the issues of “security” for families and children. We want to emphasize that women themselves are the best experts on what security means to them. And freedom from violence is definitely part of that definition. Now more than ever, the government and the parliament must take the issue of gender-based violence seriously and put women’s rights and safety at the center.
5. We should re-frame the existing narrative of “going to war against the virus” to put care at the center of our policies and economies. As I have been reading and listening to the discourse around this pandemic, I once again hear a dominant story of war: “We are fighting this crisis,” and “It is an enemy.” It angers me to hear this because I know what war looks and feels like. It also makes me sad. It tells me something about our collective imagination if the key metaphor we choose to address the crisis is rooted in a militarized discourse. I observe the direct and indirect implications this narrative has and will continue to have on our societies: what priorities it invites our governments to set, what security measures it foresees, and how it affects the rights and freedoms of the citizens.
I invite all of us to adopt the discourse of care.
We have seen that women’s reproductive work and care work, not the military or the police, are keeping our communities together. It’s time to redirect government funding for the military and security to public funds, healthcare, education, and social infrastructure. Women peacebuilders have been advocating for these approaches as part of our feminist peace agenda, stressing that investments in public services, infrastructure, and social support are crucial to ensure sustainable peace and a more just transition from the conflict—and now, from the pandemic.
To conclude, as we think together about “getting back to normal,” my invitation is to create the “new normal” together. COVID-19 is an opportunity for a re-set, with a profound re-evaluation of what we most value in our societies and our global community. It is also an invitation to draw on years of experience and analysis of women peacebuilders, who have shaped a definition of sustainable peace and worked to put it into practice: “Peace is not only the absence of war. Peace is also the guarantee of universal access to healthcare, social justice, everybody’s participation in designing the society we want, the advocacy for human rights and the recognition of care for what it is: the heroic task that keeps us all alive.”
Oksana Potapova is the Co-Founder of the Theatre for Dialogue NGO located in Ukraine.