Will the upcoming Ukrainian elections change the status quo in terms of gender equality and justice?

Natalia Karbowska, Iryna Kolkovska

In a few days Ukraine will have Parliamentary elections, the first Parliamentary elections since our Revolution. Both women and men stood at Maidan through months of days and nights for several months for the principles that are fundamentals of contemporary democratic states. One of the principles most central to those fundamentals is equality. In the Millennium Development Declaration, signed together with 189 countries, Ukraine declared that by 2015 women’s representation in the Parliament will reach 30% and, respectively, took on the obligation to create favorable conditions for that. Will Ukraine achieve this goal and we will see at least 135 women in the new Parliament? We are afraid not.

Women’s participation in decision-making again is left behind the political agenda. Instead, of honoring commitments made to those of us who make up sixty percent of the electorate, we hear rhetoric that the country will deal with war first and then think about women later. Women currently make up less than 10 percent of Ukrainian Parliament, and it’s expected to stay that way after this election.

We didn’t fight for political correctness or nominal inclusion—that’s not why women’s political representation matters. Rather, worldwide evidence shows that when women get adequate (at least 30%) representation in decision-making bodies, the development pace of the country becomes more balanced: education, health care, children’s issues, social infrastructure and related issues are moving to the top of political agenda, with adequate state funding allocated to these priority areas.

For example, in Finland, where there are 40% of women in the Parliament, unemployment keeps at 3% level. Other Scandinavian countries with similar gender proportions are famous by a high level of state support to low-income people and equal distribution of social benefits among population. Evidence shows that overall in countries where women are present in parliaments in equal proportions with men, economy is more effective and stable and society strives more for peace and stability.

To say the least, we’ve been through a lot to redraw our country with an eye to such developments of peace, equity, and systemic chnage. Whether it happens is now—or never.  And we fear never has the winning hand.

Certainly, most everywhere women vote in higher numbers, and are less represented. In Ukraine, women’s political participation is traditionally and especially a strong challenge. In the Global Gender Gap Report for 2013, Ukraine is ranked 119th out of 136 countries in terms of political empowerment of women. Women make up around half of local governments, but a small fraction of our national one. The correlation between the level of authority of the council and its gender balance remains obvious: traditionally, women are represented much better in lower-level bodies – in particular, among the council members of village and village settlement councils. Currently there is only one woman in the Government, and she heads the Ministry of Social Policy.

The main obstacles to women’s representation are systemic ones, politically, economically, and culturally. There are no programs in Ukraine that support women in combining career and household duties, nor do policies exist that support women’s  leadership at the national level. Women candidates usually do not have funding to run for an office.  And too often women themselves don’t believe they can go higher,  long and unproductive fights against stereotypes and systematic barriers finally make them give up.

The problem is complex and the solution, consequently, requires comprehensive strategies. But none of these strategies will be successful without quotas for women’s representation.    Where representation increases, it’s because policy has given us a boost.

In 2014, only a few months before the elections the “Law of Ukraine On Political Parties” was amended with the sentence stating that there should be not less than 30% of candidates of other gender on the party lists submitted to the Central Election Committee. This might look like an existing quota. In reality, however, it is not even a demonstration of political will to change the status quo, but rather a formality to have something to show in case asked. One very general sentence, without any specification, organizational principles, or mechanisms of control.  In other words, it is a mere symbol, and one that is entirely unequipped for change-making.

Furthemore, Parties often don’t know about this principle, ignore it or implement at their own discretion. On our ballots parties list around 200-225 candidates: but in the majority of the races there are only few women among first fifty candidates on the list, while in the last fifty, one can see many more women’s names. In other words, their inclusion in parties’ lists have a symbolic, merely technical role.

Practically all European countries have legislatively secured effective quotas. Respectively, Ukraine, after having signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, should also implement the principles that have long and successfully worked in the EU.  The women of Ukraine, alongside men, have paid and continue paying a very high price for creating new just society.   We have sacrificed much for a politics of equality, populated by new faces. We want female faces among them. Anything else is unequal and unjust.