EPC and FNF: The role of women in and after war – lessons learned from Ukraine

by | Apr 18, 2024

(16 April 2024 – Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit, Brussels)

Speakers:

  • Anna Vilhjalmsdottir, WPS Adviser, NATO
  • Jonna Naumanen, Senior Advisor to the EU Ambassador for Gender & Diversity, EEAS
  • Olena Rozvadovska, Founder of Voices of Children
  • Olga Tokariuk, OSUN Academy Fellow, Chatham House

Moderators:

  • Gemma Pörzgen, Editor-in-Chief “Ost-West. Europäische Perspektiven”
  • Maria Martisiute, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre

Maria Martisiute opened the panel by pointing out that the Ukraine-Russia war is the greatest human security crisis since the death of Stalin and the 1990s Balkan Wars. During war times, women have to face high risks and challenges. On one hand, Ukrainian women are warriors who joined the armed forces or lead civic organisations. On the other hand, they are victims of violence and human trafficking. After introducing the four speakers, Gemma Pörzgen gave them the floor to explore the role of women in and after war.

Jonna Naumanen stated that in general, women gain stronger positions within war societies which is largely due to the fact that men have to engage in warfare. The society is subsequently held together by women who not only take care of the household, but also take stronger roles in public engagements. Post war however, women are usually called to look after children in daycare centres – most of the time without actually being paid – which leads to them losing positions in politics and decision-making. Ultimately, the challenge is to maintain the active role of women, even after the war has ended.

Anna Vilhjalmsdottir agreed with Naumanen and added that wars put women in precarious economic situation. They have less access to jobs and not only get lower wages for an equal value work, but they might have some extra unpaid labour related to children. Vilhjalmsdottir highlighted that women are nevertheless powerful advocates and do valuable volunteer work. She admitted that there are barriers that might be difficult to address during wars, but that is one more reason why we should advance them in peace time.

Olga Tokariuk acknowledged that war adds to the burdens women already have, but stressed how important women are in resistance. The institutions are obviously preoccupied with the stability and resilience of the state, so the question is how the state and women can collaborate to ensure the survival of the country. Tokariuk underlined the challenges of Ukrainian women in the armed forces such as only getting tailored uniforms last year, and the ominous glass ceiling. She also revealed that Ukrainian women are only 25% present in the government and even less than 20% in the parliament. And although some of them are in important positions, such as Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and Oleksandra Azarkhina, Deputy Minister for Communities, Territories, and Infrastructure Development, the figures should still be improved.

Olena Rozvadovska compared the situation in 2014 to that of 2024. Ten years ago, it was an interesting thing to see women in the frontline, in the humanitarian field however, there were almost exclusively women. Nowadays, women are more engaged in the armed forces, and they still dominate the civil society, but there is a big difference compared to 2014. Women finally recognize their leadership roles, influence and relevance. Rozvadovska also voiced that these days, when advocating for children, there is no obligation anymore to be a mother which is a welcomed transformation. She wishes that every woman would remember that they are good enough and do not need to prove themselves.

Naumanen recalled that when the war started in 2022, it was the Ukrainian women who came to international platforms to tell what was happening. Again, men had to be in the frontline, but women actually took the opportunity to talk about violations.

Vilhjalmsdottir declared that Ukraine is a priority for NATO, and there is a close cooperation in peace and security issues. The main tool is the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) through which allies fund projects. Vilhjalmsdottir also highlighted that last year, Irene Fellin, Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security handed in an assessment report on the needs of the armed forces of Ukraine “through a gender lens” including concrete findings and recommendations. Consequently, two proposals were drafted, one related to funding female uniforms and body armours, and another one related to gender-responsive training. Overall, Ukraine has made a lot of progress in addressing gender and security related challenges since 2014 even if some gaps still remain.

Naumanen stated that the EU is one of the largest supporters of Ukraine. It provides a notable financial support amounting to 88 billion euros with an additional 50 billion euros agreed in 2024. The EU also has a policy framework, the Gender Action Plan III (GAP III) which aims to advance gender equality. Besides, the EU operates a monitoring mission and supports the implementation of the Ukrainian National Action Plan while addressing the issues of sexual violence and helping to set up victim centres. And now that Ukraine is in the EU accession process, it provides even more tools, such as policy reforms. A prominent example of what has been done so far is the ratification of the Istanbul convention.

Naumanen affirmed that women peace and security is a political priority and commitment for the EU which actively implements the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on that. The European Council conclusions are its own politically binding tools with everything in them “agreed to a comma” by the 27 Member States. During 2022, the EU recognized that we live in a new geopolitical reality and renewed its commitment to women peace and security with new European Council conclusions. The key areas of the EU Action Plan are prevention, protection, and relief and recovery with the overarching principles of participation, gender mainstreaming and leading by example.

Vilhjalmsdottir claimed that gender equality and women peace and security are necessary components to sustainable peace which is reflected in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept and 2023 Vilnius Summit Communiqué. Because of the changed environment, NATO has been working on a new peace and security policy which would be deliverable for the Washington Summit next July according to plans. It will better emphasize the integration of women peace and security into NATO’s three core tasks, namely deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.

Tokariuk argued that the challenge for Ukraine is first and foremost survival and winning the war. Ukraine appreciates the support, but if that is not sustainable, Ukraine will have to face it on the battlefield. She talked about the violations happening in the occupied territories where women do not have any possibility to ask for help or protection. It is good to have plans for the post-war period, but the most pressing thing is to ensure that peace actually comes – without that, those plans will simply not be relevant. According to Tokariuk, being in Ukraine is very sobering, experiencing the attacks that destroy the infrastructure and wondering about the future while Ukraine has less and less air defence capabilities.

Rozvadovska thinks that sometimes it is easier to be inside the war, because then you do not have time to think so much about what will happen. She drew attention to the fact that there are children in Ukraine who never went to school, only attended classes online. Since the war does not seem to end soon, Rozvadovska insisted on the need for specialists and therapists, especially logopaedists, due to the loss of speech being a very common stress reaction among children. After all, children are our future, so we should invest in them.

Tokariuk added that 65% of refugees are women, many of them highly skilled. According to her, it would be important to make sure that they can use their skills and will not lose them. Despite the fact that several Ukrainians are now abroad, Tokariuk believes that many of them can and will return home once the situation is finally settled.

Martisiute confirmed the importance of everything the EU and NATO are doing for Ukraine, but raised the question of medical rehabilitation, rebuilding schools and engaging more with NGOs as further possible solutions to aid Ukrainian people.

During the Q&A section, the role of men to be at the frontline in wars was addressed with the fact that soldiers often come back with traumas. Besides, the alarming demographics of the war show higher mortality rates for men, and lower fertility rates.

Naumanen talked about the geopolitical shift induced by Russian disinformation campaigns framing gender equality and women’s rights as “Western values” to polarize the EU and the global geopolitics which ultimately leads to women having less protection.

Rozvadovska stressed that Ukrainians living abroad really need to have their own community, as only a Ukrainian can understand what another Ukrainian is going through.

Circling back to the original topic, Martisiute concluded that women have a pivotal role in war societies and even if they are not seeking recognition, they would deserve it.

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