Women have largely been excluded as peace negotiators between Russia and Ukraine. Two women, Iryna Gerashchenko and Olga Ajvazovska, joined Ukraine’s delegation to peace talks; Russia sent an all-male delegation. Heidi Tagliavini, representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, have been present in mediation and third-party roles.
Since joining the Euromaidan protest movement in large numbers, women have played a powerful role in Ukrainian civil society and spearheaded relief efforts. Women-led organizations helped fund and supply the Ukrainian military; provided medical care, food, and social services to the large internally displaced population; and conducted dialogues between ethnic Ukrainian and Russian groups on the margins of formal negotiations.
The crisis in Ukraine began in November 2013 with protests over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a deal for increased economic integration with the European Union. A violent crackdown by state security forces spurred greater support for the pro-Western Euromaidan protest movement. In February 2014, President Yanukovych fled to Russia in the face of mounting protests, at which point Ukraine’s parliament removed him from office. In response to the Ukrainian revolution, Russian troops—in violation of international law—annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. This invasion incited pro-Russian separatists in two eastern Ukrainian territories to declare independence from Ukraine and prompted an ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military that has resulted in over fourteen thousand deaths and over 1.5 million internally displaced persons, 59 percent of whom are women.
Peace negotiations to date have failed to resolve this dispute [PDF]. The first deal, known as the Minsk Protocol, was signed in September 2014 between the Trilateral Contact Group—Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—but only temporarily reduced fighting. The second deal, negotiated in 2015 between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine (known as the Normandy Four), laid out a cease-fire plan and a series of measures to resolve the conflict; while this agreement helped to end large-scale battles, regular skirmishes persist. Additional talks in 2019 and 2021 concluded with limited progress.
Women have been largely excluded as peace negotiators, and civil society organizations have been shut out of official processes. Between 2014 and 2019, Ukraine sent at least ten men but only two women—Iryna Gerashchenko, the government’s humanitarian envoy, and Olga Ajvazovska, a civil society leader—to peace talks as delegates, and Russia sent none. Women have been more present in mediation and third-party roles, with Heidi Tagliavini and Heidi Grau, diplomats representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, serving as lead moderators of the Trilateral Contact Group and German Chancellor Angela Merkel participating in the Normandy Four talks.
Civil society organizations led by women have been active outside of official channels, advocating for women’s welfare, providing critical services to civilians in war zones, and conducting peace-building dialogues between ethnic Russian and Ukrainian communities. As domestic violence rose near conflict zones, women’s activists successfully lobbied Ukraine’s parliament in 2017 to enact legislation criminalizing domestic violence and establishing resources for victims. Women-led organizations also provide services to Ukraine’s internally displaced population of 1.5 million people, nearly 60 percent of whom are women.
In a country where women once seldom had the chance to serve in uniform, women now compose a significant percentage of Ukraine’s reformed police force. In 2016, Ukraine repealed a ban [PDF] on female members of the military serving in combat operations, a victory for activists who observed that female “secretaries” and “cooks” were already serving unofficially as combatants, without benefits or recognition.
Although women are grossly underrepresented in politics, holding just three out of twenty-one cabinet positions, their activism has led to noteworthy victories. Women made up an estimated 45 percent of the Euromaidan protesters, and many served as organizers. Having proven their credentials in the streets, women lawmakers subsequently formed a progressive coalition, the Equal Opportunities Caucus (EOC), which aims to elevate the voices [PDF] of civil society leaders on peace and security issues. The EOC successfully spearheaded legislation that requires at least 30 percent of candidates for municipal elections to be female and also organized the parliament’s 2016 adoption of a National Action Plan on women, peace, and security, the world’s first such plan created during an armed conflict. Although Ukrainian women have led these efforts, both proponents and detractors of the Ukrainian government’s pro-Western orientation associate the movement for gender equality with Western forces.
Despite their exclusion from formal talks, Ukrainian women have made important contributions to promote reform and help secure peace.
Stage mass action. Women helped lead the Euromaidan movement, which was responsible for challenging authoritarian practices and ushering in a more progressive government. Women participated in all aspects of the movement: peacefully marching, providing care and legal support to those on the barricades, and fighting back. “Women’s Squads” organized marches, Facebook groups for collective action, and self-defense classes. Female protest leaders demanded that the government embrace a European future, successfully highlighted the Yanukovych administration’s corruption and lack of accountability, and fought to ensure the new government reflected protesters’ demands. Women’s roles in the protests increased public support [PDF] for their political participation and empowered female legislators—especially those who had participated in the movement—to demand greater support for gender equality from their male colleagues.
Work across lines. Women leaders brought together civil society from Ukraine and Russia to build trust and peace through dialogue. Women of the Don Union, a Russian women’s organization, organized a “shadow session” [PDF] for Russian and Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations on the margins of the Minsk meetings and developed a peace-building platform that included humanitarian assistance and prisoner exchanges. The International Center for Policy Studies convened women’s activists [PDF] from affected regions to support implementation of the Minsk Protocol, and the Regional Women’s Peace Dialogue connected women across southern and eastern Europe and Central Asia to share experiences and best practices to support ongoing regional peace processes. A network of organizations used theater, festivals, and other activities to connect internationally displaced populations with their host communities.
Supplement local government work. Women volunteers are the majority of humanitarian aid and service providers in Ukraine, often the first on the ground to provide humanitarian assistance and deliver lifesaving supplies to displaced persons in the disputed territories. Women’s brigades organized campaigns to supply the army with food, funds, and equipment. The Ukrainian Women’s Fund, working with international donors such as UN Women, trained women to run for office, mobilized internally displaced persons to interact more with their host communities, and educated women in the disputed territories on how to incorporate human rights and gender equality approaches into local and regional decision-making processes. In spite of their small size and lack of visibility, women-led nongovernmental organizations [PDF] provided a disproportionate amount of medical aid, basic supplies, training, and security to the victims of the Ukrainian conflict.
“The women’s civil society is the glue that is holding communities together.”
—Oksana Potapova, Ukrainian peace activist