Ukraine, the feminist struggle does not stop with war

Ukraine, the feminist struggle does not stop with war

Viktoriia Pihul, Ukrainian feminist, anti-capitalist activist in “Sotsialnyi Rukh/Social Movement”

What it means to live in war and to be a feminist as well as a woman. We would like to know the material conditions of women's lives, within families and in society?And also how the war and the militarist and patriarchal culture act on women?

For more than four months now I have been living the experience of war on myself, observing my relatives, acquaintances and even those whom I do not know. Our life during the war is rather a process of fighting for life itself. We are being robbed of a basic human need - security. Every day we go to sleep not knowing if tomorrow we and our loved ones will have a home, food, a roof over our heads and, most importantly, a life. And then we do the usual things again under the sound of air-raid sirens, rockets flying over our heads and exploding bombs. Even one of the most popular songs in the Ukrainian YouTube Music charts is called "У мене немає дому," which means "I have no home.

But war is not only overt hostilities. War is the aggravation of all the pain points that were previously in public, political and social life.

In this process I would just like to talk about the role of women, because it too has taken on new forms. Gender roles are changing in Ukraine. With many people becoming unemployed and primarily men joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine, women report taking on new roles and multiple jobs to make up for the lost family income. At the same time, women are now spending more and more time with their children, as they are on distance learning. They also stay in the occupied territories to care for the elderly parents or others. Or they are afraid of losing their sources of income. Thus, they are increasingly at risk of violence, both from the Russians and domestic, psychological abuse.

Also, there is already information (but not statistics, unfortunately, because it is almost impossible to conduct sociology during war) about an increase in the level of domestic violence. When women apply to the police, they often throw up their hands and say "now is not the time. Probably, the ratification of the Istanbul Convention can affect the solution of this problem. But it is important to keep in mind that Ukraine adopted it with amendments and restrictions in order to reach a consensus with conservatives and the church. That is, Ukraine reserved the right not to amend the constitution, the family code, and other laws adopted earlier. Therefore, everything will depend on how effectively the Convention will be applied in reality.  

In other areas, the Ukrainian government has passed laws that limit workers' rights: the first is the rejection of collective agreements with trade unions (this is already being implemented in enterprises); the second - employers can force them to work more, the third - there is a simplified dismissal system. Strikes and demonstrations are prohibited. Given that women are now forced to work more, this law affects them directly. This law was being prepared before the war, but now is a very opportune time to pass it when the public focus is completely shifted toward the war. 

In general, there is an opinion that now is not the time to criticize the internal policies of the government, to address gender issues, including gender quotas in politics, to address the problem of domestic violence, inequality in the payment of wages. But we know that it is impossible to postpone such issues. Otherwise this knot will tighten even tighter. 

In all of this, the role of feminists remains as important as it was before the war. But I see our mission as working with women, listening and keeping attention to their thoughts and needs. There is a certain stereotype in Ukrainian society that feminists are сrazy young girls who have not developed a personal life and hate men. This is a weakness, but it can be worked with. I see our role as feminists as being with women, helping them through the hardest times, understanding their needs, helping and showing that we actually stand up for our rights.  It is important to help them understand the enormous contribution women have made to Ukraine's survival: their work on the home front, providing humanitarian aid, volunteering, taking care of children and the elderly, providing medical and other services. They do all this and often take it for granted. Women's visibility is very important, but it is the women themselves who must be the first to realize it. 

What has changed in your actions? What achievements or levels of debate risk to go backwards and what potential spaces can be opened up?

Before the war, feminists and those who fought with us for women's rights and visibility did a very large part of the outreach work: educational courses, programs and events; organizing actions, marches, etc. Now this work is being transformed and the aid is primarily focused on survival and humanitarian support: food, clothing, shelter, medicine. This is a countervailing point: on the one hand, the feminist movement is becoming closer to women, hearing their voices.

The good point for women rights is women lead and are more engaged in community humanitarian efforts. It provides opportunities for humanitarian actors to seek women’s participation and guidance. I think that it is very important to focus on this: women are involved in very important processes that allow Ukrainians to live and survive in the rear.

On the other hand, many problems become, as I said, "bad timing," and there is a chance of losing past victories. And what women are doing now to win may be overlooked in public discourse. Since now all attention is focused on military operations and men’s role.  As well as the female contribution at the front will be less noticeable. That is, the inequality in the representation of female and male roles does not disappear during the war, but rather increases.

I see potential spaces for feminist work as grassroots activism and work with women to build cohesion, awareness of our visibility, and further struggle for women's political participation.

For example, gender quotas, the promotion and implementation of the Istanbul Convention, which was ratified last month in Ukraine, working with the problem of domestic violence, the creation of shelters for women with straight work with psychotherapists.

All this can be realized when women will represent their interests and will overcome the stereotype that it is all done by some great people in politics, and they do not decide anything

What forms and relations of resistance are you carrying on after four months of war? What do you think the post-war period will be like and how are you preparing for it, also with regard to the risks of internal social crisis (danger of the growth of nationalism, debt)?

I'm volunteering at the social organization "Sotsialny Rukh". There from the first day of the war we began to work for social rights in a very collected manner. 

We understand that the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine will be a very long and thorny path. Only now the losses amount to several billion dollars, and the war is still in the active phase and the destruction continues every day. Presently Ukraine’s foreign debt stands at $125 billion. The debt servicing expenditure for 2022 is expected to be circa $6.2 billion. That is approximately 12% of all state budgetary expenditure. The IMF component of the above sum is $2.7 billion. That is equivalent to 16.5 million average pension payments in Ukraine.

One of our big campaigns is to cancel Ukraine's foreign debt in order to reduce the burden on the financial system. Moreover, this debt is unfair: сhaotic borrowing and antisocial debt conditionality was a result of total oligarchization: unwilling to fight the wealthy, the state rulers kept getting deeper in debt. Loans were issued under conditions of social spending cuts, and their repayment forced them to economize on vital needs and apply austerity to foundational economic sectors. To learn more about the foreign debt, why it's important to write it off, and to sign the petition, visit the website our activists created at

We also fight for labor rights. Now we have a project called “Трудоборона”/"Work Defence". Everyone can write about their case of rights violation, dismissal (there are cases when they are fired even via messenger) and others. Our lawyer advises, helps through legal aspects to protect their labor rights. There are even cases of winning cases in court. These were the stories of women who were illegally dismissed and they fought to the last, because they have the responsibility to provide for their children and to be unemployed is a tragedy in war conditions. 

We launched a campaign to prevent the liberalization of labor law in the draft law 5371, which essentially destroys the rights of workers for small and medium-sized enterprises (that's 73 percent of employers). It contradicts both EU and ILO norms, it was postponed until the war because of the public outcry. We are also fighting for the dismissal of Galina Tretiakova - Head of the Committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on Social Policy and the Protection of Veterans' Rights, who was promoting these laws before the war. But now she took advantage of the martial law and the shift in focus and passed these laws. 

A large part of the work is also cooperation with trade unions, including “Будь як Ніна”/"Be like Nina" Union which protects the rights of female health care workers.  Because nurses are now losing their jobs, their salaries are being cut, and so on. 

It is important for us that the war does not become an excuse to impose social restrictions on people, because it is they who will be rebuilding Ukraine.

What relations do you have with other associations? What responses have women and minorities given to armed and/or civil defense and the differences between the two?

All representatives of women's and minority organizations are in favor of armed defense, because abstract pacifism does not work in the face of the Russian invasion. Moreover, they are actively involved in the struggle: they find humanitarian aid, medicines (including for trans people), create shelters, and help women with children to find or provide babysitters. Also, women and minorities are members of the armed forces and fight on the front lines.  

I would also like to mention that Russia and its propaganda believe that all activist movements, including women's movements, are some kind of "agents of the West”. This is why we (activists) have no way or thought of giving up the struggle. We cannot just lay down our arms, it would lead to a catastrophe on a global scale. The issue here is that we have the right to defend ourselves and we fight for our freedo

Do you have and what are the relationships with other feminists in Eastern or Western European countries? What do you think about the position who say "desert the war/desert all the wars" in the contest of Ukrainian situation?

I'm a member of ENSU (European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine), where we have a working group of feminists from different European countries. I'm also in contact with feminists from Defensorías de género in Argentina. We also work actively with the Polish party Razem. For example, in our working group we created together a petition demanding the legalization of abortion in Poland. Because many Ukrainian women who were raped by the Russian military and got pregnant fled from the war to Poland. They were not legally allowed to have an abortion there. Therefore, this issue is important not only for Ukraine, but also for the global feminist agenda.   

We have seen many pacifist statements by Western feminists, including their manifesto.  In the face of war and the daily deaths of our women and children, we are critical of this position. In this context, I am part of a working group of Ukrainian feminists who have written the Ukrainian Feminist Manifesto. We call for support for Ukrainian women, including our right to armed resistance. This war shows us that feminism is a movement that must respond to changing situations, be flexible and develop principles according to new conditions.  

What are you asking to european anti-liberalism and anti-authoritarian left, social movements, feminists? What we can do to support your efforts and commitment in civil resistance?

Our main goal now is to win this war. Here we have to understand that it may be a protracted process, and it is not a quick process, which is hoped for. In this direction, we support foreign policy in terms of arms deliveries, sanctions, and confiscation of Russian assets. What is critical to victory is not to let the war and all the terrible events in Ukraine disappear from the world's agenda. If everyone conditionally gets used to it - it will be harder for us to survive and the problem will only become ours. And this is a risk for the world, too. 

Right now our work is related to the campaigns I described above.  We need support in promoting the campaign for external debt сancelation, because for years it has benefited both international financial organizations and Ukrainian elites, but not the people of Ukraine and served as a means of restraining Ukraine's development, a way to leave it on the periphery of Europe. This process has to change, because Ukraine is now fighting for the security of all of Europe and proving its right to be a member of this union. 

Also the publicity of the problem of liberalization of labor legislation is needed at the European level, because Ukraine has taken a course on European integration, and infringement of workers is unacceptable for this. 

We want European integration, but European integration with European trade unions, workers' movements and grassroots initiatives. We have to show that inequality and unresolved class conflicts are as dangerous to world security as tyranny. It is not something that is an internal matter of countries. Inequality and related violations of people's social rights should be as much a cause for various kinds of international restrictions as tyranny and violations of human rights.

We know you will attend soon a feminist conference. What is it about and what are your expectations? Of course we will be very interested to know how the debate was and if there are any common campaigns or actions.

Yes, I was recently a participant in the Feminist Forum in Lviv. It was organized by the Ukrainian Women's Fund. My expectations included the development of joint initiatives and, perhaps, agreements to collaborate on different feminist initiatives. 

Indeed, there were representatives of different directions at the forum. It was interesting to get to know the thoughts of women colleagues about where our work is going, what they see as problems and their solutions.  For example, together we identified the main trends in women's issues: the influence of religion on the identification of feminist movements, the development of the movement only at the grassroots level, insufficient influence on decision-making, not well established work with local government, the lack of equality in the Ukrainian military, gender-based violence and domestic violence remain high (including the fact that women are economically dependent and do not know or are afraid to seek help from feminist initiatives due to stereotypes). 

In general, participants shared their experiences and observations that feminism as a movement in Ukraine is clearly in a better position now than it was 10 years ago. For example, the ratification of the Istanbul Convention is a great step and achievement of the struggle of women over the past 10 years. But when this issue came up, no one in the government mentioned that it was a decision because of women's struggle. Rather, it was a step towards the informal demands of European institutions, for the sake of obtaining candidate status with the EU. 

I think we need to keep working to move from grassroots activism to a political movement. 
Nevertheless, for me, this two-day meeting was more of a theoretical meeting, which is also important. But I'm not sure that we can convert the groundwork into common action in the midst of war. Rather, each took for themselves some thoughts and ideas that they can implement in their own organization or grassroots initiative.

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