Ukraine’s Security Sector—Between Western Gender Standards and Eastern Traditions

Corinna Hörst
Sofiia Shevchuk
6 min read
Photo Credit: Bumble Dee / Shutterstock
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky has brought a complete newcomer to power in Ukraine.

The election of Volodymyr Zelensky has brought a complete newcomer to power in Ukraine. While it remains to be seen what kind of politics he will practice, he has already appointed a presidential team that includes only men. This is a missed opportunity for Ukraine. Putting together a diverse governing team would have allowed him to demonstrate inclusive leadership by recognizing that the security issues Ukraine is facing are best addressed with a diverse team with different perspectives and life experiences. That would have been a new holistic approach that could have produced new solutions.

While Ukraine is making efforts to integrate European values and ideas, it has a long way to go when it comes to moving forward from post-Soviet, conservative traditions and perceptions related to women. While they manage to reach mid-level positions, Ukrainian women frequently encounter hurdles in moving further up. Views on traditional gender roles prevent them from demanding and assuming more visible leadership positions with greater responsibilities. The societal environment does not support the creation of space for women to advance. Moreover, when women in Ukraine (and other countries in the European Union’s eastern neighborhood) have taken high-level public positions, the result has been mixed—they have frequently either adopted male behavior or cultivated close ties with powerful men. This has made them often appear not to be gender-sensitive in making policy decisions and hence has made their leadership as women less credible and authentic.

From Soviet to NATO and EU standards

The Soviet Union aspired to create societies that required women’s active participation, in line with Joseph Stalin’s declaration in 1930 that the new regime had succeeded in “liberating downtrodden women.” Yet, while equal rights might have meant access to employment, women were still expected to also perform as mothers, housekeepers, and wives—in addition to fulfilling expectations of feminine beauty. Today, despite official commitments to women’s rights or aspirations to fulfill EU standards regarding equality, human rights, and economic opportunities, the issue itself has not changed significantly in the post-Soviet countries, which retain patriarchal and conservative societies. For example, long-term maternity leave, once celebrated as a major achievement for women after the fall of communism, continues to put the burden of parenting and caring on women only.

This makes it difficult for women to advance—especially in politics, public affairs, or security—in a country like Ukraine. They are present in entry-level positions but struggle to get to leadership positions. It is more socially acceptable for women to be in academia, think tanks, or in the best-case scenario in parliament, where they tend to deal with “soft” policy areas like education, health, and culture rather than with foreign policy, security, and defense. In Ukraine’s former government women held 20.8 percent of cabinet seats, and they held 11.6 percent of seats in parliament. Communication about the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to distort women’s images—men are presented as protectors and women as their supporters, even though women fight alongside men in the same battalions.

This situation endures despite pressure to apply NATO and EU standards in the security sector. Around 8.5 percent of Ukraine’s army consists of women, which is equivalent to the lower end of the spectrum across NATO member states and partners. Only 22.8 percent of police positions are filled by women. The number of women recruited by the armed forces and police has increased since 2016, yet there has not been a strategy implemented to attract more of them and to build a pipeline. And these women are still subject to discrimination and relegated to low-ranking, gendered positions in functions such as nursing, finance, logistics, and communications.

In Ukraine’s Strategic Defense Bulletin, a roadmap for defense reform developed to align the country with NATO principles, there are a limited number of goals related to women, peace, and security. Among them are equal opportunities for women, institutionalizing greater gender parity, and the establishment of gender advisors and networks. Ukraine also adopted a National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security in 2016, aiming to improve women’s participation in this sector, including in crisis management and negotiations. Yet, so far, these commitments remain mostly aspirations.

At the same time, Ukraine’s European counterparts are not doing enough to stick to their own principles when dealing with the country. For example, the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, one of the largest among the representations of international organizations in the country, has a share of women of around 20 percent. In March 2018 it adopted a Gender Equality Action Plan, aiming to contribute to the organization’s commitments for gender equality, but women’s representation overall only slightly increased last year, and in senior and field management positions it decreased by up to 5 percent.

The Minsk negotiations only included Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a leading female figure in the Normandy Group. The only women represented in the Trilateral Contact Group that comprises the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine are from the Ukrainian side: Irina Gerashchenko, the first vice-speaker of parliament, who participated in the working group on humanitarian affairs, and Olha Aivazovska from the NGO OPORA Civic Network. EU and NATO member states do not lead by example in fulfilling their commitments to gender equality.

Civil Society as Driver of Change

There is still a considerable way to go to reach gender balance in Ukraine in the security sector. The Hromadske channel recently started a new program for women, sarcastically titled “My Dear”, which interviews famous women around the world. For the first edition, the interviewee was Brigadier-général Jennie Carignan, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Division and Joint Task Force East. In addition to being the highest-ranking female member of Canada’s army, she is a wife, mother of four children, and loves dancing, which breaks all the stereotypes existing in Ukraine. More stories like hers can raise awareness and provide alternative images as the country works to find its place between East and West.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in July will provide another avenue for women to be included more in the country’s decision-making process. The gender advisor of Zelensky’s team, Maryna Bardina, has called for more women to join politics to push for a more feminist agenda. It remains to be seen what impact this will have. Considering the ongoing process of reforms in the country, Ukraine’s women would be well advised to take a cue from the impressive civil society mobilization in the United States that followed the election of President Donald Trump’s in 2016 and propelled more American women into political life.

Later this month, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, along with several partners, will convene the fifth edition of Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector, a transatlantic event that aims to elevate the importance of achieving diversity and inclusion in the security sector and to provide a platform for knowledge exchange—something that a country like Ukraine can benefit from. Participants from the countries of the former Soviet Union will have the opportunity to look at the security sector in its widest sense in fundamentally new ways for them. This will provide an opportunity for them to move away from solely defining security in the context of being situated between the East and West, and to address the future of work, the military, and the police as employers, and the value of veteran’s engagement in more multifaceted and inclusive ways.