Ukrainian feminist activist Maryna Shevtsova: All women’s rights organisations have switched to emergency mode

What has the war meant for women? Hille Hanso talked to Maryna Shevtsova, a Ukrainian scholar, feminist and activist, about the history of the feminist movement in Ukraine, the developments in women’s and minorities’ political rights in Ukraine before the war, about the views on surrogacy and the impact of the war. Their conversation began in the autumn and ended when Russia had attacked Ukraine and the normal functioning of society ceased abruptly.

Please tell me about your background and your path to being a feminist and a women’s rights activist.

As most women of my generation (MS was born in 1982, ed) I grew up without really knowing what “discrimination” or “gender inequality” was supposed to mean – even though, obviously, each of us experienced those on a daily basis. The Ukrainian feminist scholar Oksana Kis has written extensively about the so-called “Ukrainian matriarchate myth” – the pervasive idea that women have never been oppressed in our country and even used to have a dominant position compared to men. It is still quite a popular statement expressed not only by the radical opponents of feminism but also by ordinary people in Ukraine. However, it suffices to have a quick look at basic statistics to realize there is a large room for improvement: we have a 23% gender pay gap, women still spend twice as much as men doing house chores (29 hours compared to 15) and taking care of kids (49 hours compared to 22), and every second woman has faced sexual harassment at least once in her life. 

I have a background in economics, I defended my PhD in Economics in 2008 and for ten years I worked in the private sector as a procurement specialist. Back then, work in a private company in Ukraine could give you a first-hand experience of gender discrimination. Your appearance could be questioned during a job interview, you could be made to sign a paper that you would not get pregnant while working for the company, and it was a quite common practice to pay women much less than men, with the justification that a man needs to provide for a family, while a woman can always find a man to help her financially. At a certain point I felt like I needed to find ways to start changing this situation. I learned about a program in Gender Studies at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. I applied, and was given a generous scholarship. And so, I quit my job and became a student once again.

Since completing that program, I have been working as a researcher and scholar on the topics of LGBTQ rights, queer migration, right-wing populism, and anti-gender movements, and I also became a professional human rights activist and consultant on the topics of diversity, equality, and inclusion. 

Would you please describe the history of the womens’ and minority rights movement in Ukraine? Who were/are the leading figures?

According to Tamara Martsenyuk, a leading Gender studies scholar and sociologist in Ukraine, feminism as an organized women’s movement, ideology and cultural tradition, emerged in Ukraine in the late nineteenth century. In 1884, the first women’s organization was founded by the writer and feminist Natalia Kobrynska (1855-1920): the Society of Russian Women, in Stanislav (now Ivano-Frankivsk). In 1887, the first women’s almanack “The First Wreath” was published by Kobrynska together with Olena Pchilka. In the series “Women’s Library”, Kobrynska published works for women written by women.

During the Soviet times, civil society or social movements as such could not exist. However, we can speak of a certain level of women’s emancipation that the Soviet regime brought to Ukraine. It is “thanks” to it that by the 1990s, Ukraine had a very high share of women with higher education diplomas and the tradition of women taking high career posts. At the same time, these were always women responsible for child caring and the lion share of house chores – carrying the famous double-burden.

Since the 1990s, we can speak of the so-called academic women’s rights activism, when many women scholars gained knowledge of Western Feminist and Gender and Sexuality Studies and adapted them to the Ukrainian reality. If I think of the names, those are definitely Solomiya Pavlychko, Olena Strelnyk, Tamara Martsenyuk, Tetyana Zhurzhenko, Oksana Kis, but also many others. In the early 2000s, many women’s rights NGOs emerged, including the Ukrainian Association of Women’s History Researchers, Ukrainian Association of Women Lawyers, La Strada-Ukraine International Women’s Human Rights Centre, Women’s Information and Consulting Centre, Western Ukrainian Centre “Women’s Perspectives”, NGO for women with disabilities “Donna-Ukraine”, Women’s Association “Sphere” in Kharkov, “Insight” in Kiev, Gender in Details, and so on.

During the last decade we have seen more and more intersectional feminism, grassroot activism, and a peaceful protest culture. During recent years, 8th March Women’s marches in the bigger cities became a tradition. The projects of women’s rights organisations include a very wide range of activities, such as conferences, women’s rights camps, education, training, marches, media campaigns, work with various professional groups, advocacy, and so on.

What have been the significant landmarks in legislation or social change concerning women’s and minority rights?

Among those are the law “On Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men” from 2005, the law “On Principles of Prevention and Counteraction of Discrimination in Ukraine” from 2012, and the law “On preventing and combating domestic violence” from 2017. These laws, together with other national and international regulations and norms, have created a foundation for gender equality advocacy and policy promotion and their adoption would not have been possible without the long-term coordinated efforts of our civil society activists and, which has to be noted, pressure from the European Union and the international community.

The anti-discrimination law was also important because it was the first law that – though implicitly – protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. There was a large protest and conservative and religious groups insisted that gender identity and sexual orientation should not be included into the list of the grounds against which a person  should not be discriminated. Instead, the law states “and others” and this allegedly can include LGBTQ people, too.

Another important legal change for LGBTQ people was an amendment to the Labour Code adopted in 2015, according to which one may not be discriminated against due to their gender identity or sexual orientation during employment (at workplace). This was a major victory for our LGBTQ community and there was a lot of work behind it. And, again, it would not have been possible without strong pressure from the EU – Ukraine was about to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and get a visa-free travel regime at this time. In exchange, our government was made to promise to make certain changes, including the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation. Since the government negotiated that sexual orientation and gender identity would not be explicitly covered by this law, there was a need to adopt this amendment to the Labour Code to comply with the EU legislation. Interestingly, when we talk about the EU, non-discrimination of LGBTQ people at workplace is the only thing that is guaranteed at the EU level, the rest varies from country to country, i.e. the EU itself needs a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. 

Women's March in Ukraine 2019. Creative Commons: UN Women/Volodymyr Shuvayev

Women’s March in Ukraine 2019. Creative Commons: UN Women/Volodymyr Shuvayev

What have been the setbacks?

I believe that lack of implementation and reluctance of the government to adopt or ratify certain legal acts. For example, we still have not ratified the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women, ed.). The law defining hate crimes and providing the mechanism to fight them has not even passed the first reading in the government. Existing laws, such as the anti-discrimination law, are not properly implemented. All this needs a much stronger, joint effort of both the political parties and the international and local civil society organisations.

Before the war, we also had conservative groups gaining power and from time to time and they have come up with draft laws such as a law that was supposed to ban “propaganda of homosexuality.” 

Thanks to the joint efforts of the local activists and the international organisations – and also because often these drafts were poorly written – none of them has been adopted. 

Can you describe the human rights and, more narrowly, the women’s rights movement in Ukraine before the ongoing war?

We had some hundred women’s rights organisations across Ukraine and 40+ LGBTQ rights organisations. Broadly, we could speak of academic activism, women’s rights, or gender studies scholars in almost all major universities. Then we had NGOs working on women’s rights nationally or regionally, as well as multiple grassroot initiatives. There are, of course, intersectional feminists, radical feminists, we have LGBTQ and queer women’s rights initiatives, lesbian organisations, trans women communities, and so on. The agenda varies from group to group and from region to region, but I would say that political representation, fighting domestic violence, closing the gender pay gap and improving the situation for working mothers are among the central topics on which most of these movements agree. Then nuances come into play, such as class, ethnicity, sexuality, disabilities, and so on. 

Did poverty in Ukraine before war have a female face as it tends to have everywhere in the world?

Yes, unfortunately, Ukraine was no exception from the rule and, as in many developing/young democracies, women of Ukraine were more vulnerable when it came to economic hardships. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we could talk about the feminisation of poverty in Ukraine due to such factors as underemployment, feminisation of less profitable sectors of the economy (for example, education), low participation in decision-making, the glass ceiling, restricted access to decision-making, unequal distribution of responsibilities when it comes to caring about children and elderly people, much higher number of single mothers than single fathers with a lack of programs that would support single parenting, and so on. These are usually women whose careers are interrupted for several years. First, due to maternity leave, and even when they get back to work, they are usually the ones who stay at home when children are sick or have to work part-time to pick them up from the nurseries or schools. Hence, slower advancement, if any, up the career ladder and lower pay.

COVID affected women even worse. According to a study by UN Women, the average profile of a Ukrainian unemployed person during the Covid-19 time was a 40-year-old woman with a higher education diploma who used to work in commerce. During the first one and a half months of quarantine in Ukraine, female unemployment increased by 5% compared to the same period last year. In some sectors, such as the beauty industry, where 94% of employees are women, the small businesses and individual entrepreneurs had to move to shadow work to continue to earn a living and survive through the lockdown. Despite high fines, numerous beauty salons continued working behind shut doors, often without proper protection and sanitary measures. Still, the income of women occupied in this sector fell dramatically, different sources say between 67% and 90%.

In healthcare, the share of women is 82.8% (compared to 70% on average worldwide) and in Ukraine this field is extremely underfunded. And I do not even start here on the burden of home-schooling during the quarantine. That burden, obviously, was mostly on women.

Women's March in Ukraine 2019. Creative Commons: UN Women/Volodymyr Shuvayev

Women’s March in Ukraine 2019. Creative Commons: UN Women/Volodymyr Shuvayev

In media, violence against women, human trafficking, and women as surrogate mothers are often raised in the Ukrainian context. Can you contextualise these issues from the women’s rights perspective?

Indeed, all the issues you mentioned are very acute and painful for Ukraine. I will start with the surrogacy. In Ukraine it has been a legal practice since 2000. It is relatively cheap – surrogacy in Ukraine cost around USD 50.000 compared to USD 100.000 in the USA –, and as more countries banned commercial surrogacy, my country turned into a real hot spot. While this interview is too short to go deeper into moral reflections and implications of the practice of compensated surrogacy, especially when the service is provided by women from a poorer country to people coming from a developed democracy banning commercial surrogacy to its own citizens, I would like to note the following.

As it comes out from multiple videos and written interviews with surrogate mothers, they all oppose the possibility of banning commercial surrogacy in Ukraine. Some of them have been surrogate mothers more than once, mainly because they needed money. Though surrogacy in Ukraine is comparatively cheap and surrogate mothers receive only a small part of the entire cost – from 9000 to 15 000 US Dollars – most of them would not be able to earn that amount of money in nine months. At the same time, many women prefer to frame their motivation as a desire to “help the families that would not be able to have children otherwise,” and some even suggest that they should be called “helpers” rather than “surrogate mothers.” They claim their right to decide what to do with their bodies and emphasise the difference between their own children and surrogate babies.

While it can be an appealing option to say that surrogacy in Ukraine leads to women’s empowerment, one must understand that the working conditions most of these women face are far from great. Although the agencies promise to provide comfortable living conditions for surrogate mothers, often, it is not the case. Usually, they live in their own homes until the sixth month and then move to poorly furnished flats rented by the clinic. Should the baby be born unhealthy or there are consequences to the surrogate woman’s health, the agency does not pay any additional compensation.

There is no simple solution here. Neither the reproductive agencies nor surrogate mothers themselves have been particularly interested in actively engaging with the authorities out of fear that substantial restrictions or a complete ban will be imposed on the industry. While several proposals from different initiative groups have been submitted to the government, they have been created without including the main stakeholders and experts in the discussion. Hence, it is difficult to predict whose interests the laws may serve in the future and especially after the war. And, of course, one yet has to realise that the problem has deep socio-economic roots. Until women in Ukraine face dilemmas like giving birth to a surrogate child or being unable to pay for their parent’s hospital bills or own kids’ education, the surrogacy market, either transparent or not, will most likely continue to exist. 

One can assume that the roots of trafficking also derive from poverty?

Yes, trafficking in women has roots in economic problems. For thousands of Ukrainians, migration is a survival strategy. In some regions of Ukraine, the possibilities for education and for employment were quite scarce and this pushed a lot of women to follow various dubious job offers from the agencies promising them some paid options abroad. IOM does a lot to support Ukrainian government in preventing and fighting human trafficking reports that around 40% of all Ukrainians working abroad do so illegally, which makes them easy victims of various kinds of exploitation. Young women can be forced into low-paid sex-work or sex-slavery. These topics are often discussed in the media and there are NGOs, such as La Strada, working for years on preventing trafficking in women, but again, these efforts should clearly come together with more social programs and support for women in general, aiming at education and assistance with job search.

Domestic violence is the topic that is discussed more than surrogacy. Lately we discussed the issue with regard to the Istanbul Convention that Ukraine signed several years ago, yet failed to ratify. The opposition to the ratification of the convention comes mostly from religious organizations that claim that the treaty’s terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation’ would lead to the promotion of same-sex relationships in Ukraine.

On the one hand, I think there is a general agreement that this is a big issue for Ukraine. Multiple sources quote the information that 75 per cent of women in the country reported to have experienced some form of violence since the age 15, and one in three had experienced physical or sexual violence. Moreover, in 2017 Ukraine adopted the law on domestic violence – and this law does not limit domestic violence to physical abuse, but recognizes its sexual, psychological, and economic variations. However, the problem remained that 38% of Ukraine’s judges and 39% of prosecutors still saw domestic violence as a household issue and while we can see more training programs for police officers that have made police more reactive to domestic violence complaints, it is still difficult to have the victim protected.

The high distrust of police in the society contributed to the fact that victims often did not use public services as they do not believe they will be taken seriously. There was also serious societal stigma, victim-blaming and a common belief that domestic violence is not something that could happen to anyone, despite the numbers mentioned above. Yet a lot of work was going on before the Russian attack and I hope that the government will pay more attention to this issue and that the efforts of NGOs and more conscious police officers will result in more substantial societal changes.

Since we started this conversation, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine and thousands of lives have been taken. Can you reflect on what this has meant for Ukrainian women?

More than 20 thousand Ukrainian women are now fighting in this war as combatants. Around 30 thousand more women serve in the Ukrainian military: for millions of Ukrainians a Ukrainian woman is no longer reduced to a mother figure or a wife of a soldier only, it is clear to everyone that women alongside men are defending Ukrainian lands. 

Thousands of women demonstrate the miracle of self-organisation and mobilisation of all kinds of resources, providing supplies to the army and hospitals, organising the evacuation of the population from the cities hit by the war, helping displaced people and animals, risking their lives to deliver food and medicines to those in need. 

While more than two million of Ukrainians, majority of them women with kids, often with little means for survival, are now refugees in various European countries trying to settle down, organise the lives of their kids and be as effective as possible helping Ukrainians from abroad, hundreds of thousands Ukrainian women also chose to stay and continue their work now needed to support both those fighting and those at the home front. Doctors and nurses, translators, journalists, programmers, cooks, civil society activists, cashiers in the supermarkets – all of them work double-shifts to make sure that everyone can buy everything they need, and farmers in areas not yet hit by bombs make sure that at least some parts of the Ukrainian fertile soil will bring harvests this year. 

All women’s rights organisations have now had to switch into the emergency mode and are looking for ways to be useful to the Ukrainian people. We observe an enormous level of solidarity and the rise of national identity. And, while being unbelievably efficient in their fights, all these women are counting days until this war is over and they can go back to their cities, their homes, their jobs, to rebuild our country from scratch. Unfortunately, as I see it today, for most of them this is not something to happen very soon.