Blerta Cela: Time to promote women’s rights in Ukraine is now

06 Mar 2017

 A woman holds a poster reading: "Everybody needs feminism" as she participates in the "I Am Not Afraid to Say It" march in support of women's rights on Independence Square in Kyiv on Sept. 17.

By Blerta Cela, UNDP Deputy Country Director Programmes, UNDP. Originally published by Kyiv Post, 6 March 2017

Nataliya Ovsyuk, originally from Illovaysk in Donetsk region, left home with her two children in July 2014 without any means of future support. She braved checkpoints with her four- and six-year-old children in tow.

The struggling family moved to Lviv, where they did not have any friends or relatives, to begin their lives anew.  Nataliya’s struggles led her into chronic depression, but she fought on and went out every day to seek a source of income for the sake of her children.

In late 2014, she began attending psychological training for IDPs. She learned about the grants she was eligible for and wanted to apply, but lack of experience of business plan preparation meant she failed to submit her proposal on time. Her first small victory followed training by the UNDP-supported “Women’s Perspectives” NGO.

She learned how to develop her business proposal and received a grant to establish a curtain-making business. She could now buy modern equipment and start making curtains: something she had always been good at.  Now she has many clients among the local population and is quite optimistic about the future.

“The UNDP skills training and business grant gave me the means and courage to start a successful business. I am a successful businesswoman, provide for my family and support my community,” Ovsyuk says.


The war in the Donbas also forced another woman, Oksana Rusanova, to flee her home. She left Donetsk to go to Zaporizhzhia, where she had to start her life all over again.

An associate professor of physics at Donetsk National University with 17 years of teaching experience, she decided to use this experience for the good of the community. She began a scientific lab for children entitled “Fun Science.”  The project organizes children’s parties around demonstrations of physical and chemical experiments, scientific workshops and family camps.

Oksana says the activities help children think outside the box and find enjoyment in learning. “These children will become the brains of Ukraine, our future elite, and I believe they will bring something new to our country,” says Oksana, who is a mother of two.

Oksana’s project was launched in February 2016 with a UNDP grant for purchasing Ukrainian-made laboratory equipment, materials and office stationery for workshops and presentations.

Since then 2,000 children and adults have participated in project activities in seven regions of Ukraine. Oksana’s team have also travelled to Armenia to give a presentation and hold a summer science camp. She is now planning to expand her business by producing scientific toys.

She has submitted a business idea for a board game called “The Treasures of Earth” to the UNDP Crowdfunding Academy. Oksana sees her board game as a journey of learning and fun for both children and adults: “In future the concept can be modified into a series of game quests covering various topics in history, geography, geophysics and other fields.”

Like Nataliya and Oksana, many women in Ukraine are disproportionally affected by the country’s economic and political crises. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has directly and adversely affected over 3.8 million people, 70 per cent of whom are women, the elderly, or children. Many of them have fled the conflict zone and are now IDPs. Of the 1.6 million IDPs in Ukraine, almost 61 per cent are female, and over 70 per cent of all unemployed IDPs are women.

UNDP and its partners are working to create jobs and livelihoods for people affected by the conflict. In 2016 alone, more than a million women benefitted from UNDP socio-economic activities, including job co-financing, and small grants to launch new businesses and rebuild businesses destroyed by conflict.

UNDP startup grants have helped create almost 250 businesses. UNDP has also supported local business associations with networking events, training, and business consulting, which has directly benefited more than 500 women-led and women-owned micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. With UNDP technical support, the Donetsk Chamber of Commerce launched a Committee on Women’s Entrepreneurship to address the needs of women-led enterprises for services and advocacy and adopted a policy of equal opportunities in business.

Ukraine and other countries around the world celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. The global theme for this year – “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” – focuses on equal employment for women.

This theme is extremely important for Ukraine, which dropped in the Global Gender Gap Index from 56 in 2014, to 69 in 2016, primarily due to worsening economic opportunities for women.

There are 700,000 fewer working women aged 15-70 than working men in the same age bracket. Discrimination in wages and pay mean women on average earn 35.6 per cent less per month than men for equivalent positions and skills. Labour contracts and other documents related to women’s employment are often drawn up for the short-term, so that women can be dismissed without any social benefits if they give birth or take parental or sick leave.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has adversely affected women’s safety and security. A recent UNDP survey found that two thirds of women do not feel safe outside after dark, and a third do not feel safe at home. Poverty and unemployment were identified as the major concerns, trumping safety and conflict related issues.

This must change! Economic and social development, as well as EU integration, are feasible for Ukraine, as long as women are economically empowered to maximize their potential.

Labor legislation should be revised to ensure that women have equal rights and opportunities and receive equal pay for their work. Managerial bodies in the public and private sector should take action to promote gender parity. Gender equality experts need to be involved in decision making to ensure that ongoing economic reforms address gender gaps in the labor market. The legal framework and justice system should focus on equal employment rights, assets and property rights for women. Gender disaggregated data and statistics need to be systematically collected on rural and urban poor women to assess progress.

Ukraine needs to prepare itself, as new technology and globalization are significantly transforming work for women and men. As the fourth industrial revolution takes hold, it will continue to affect female and male workers in different ways. It is critical to ensure that Ukraine keeps up with new skills and develops talent to ensure that women and men can compete in today’s rapidly changing world.

Global research by ManpowerGroup in 43 countries found that 40 per cent of employers reported difficulties in filling jobs. Developing new talent will require Ukraine’s government to embrace and promote technological innovation by providing adequate financing and infrastructure and by experimenting with new forms of public-private collaboration.

Measures intended to help IDPs and other conflict-affected populations to sustain themselves must be sensitive, based on gender analysis, and responsive to the special needs of women and girls.

In particular, well-targeted measures are needed to ease IDPs’ transition from education, maternity leave or long-term inactivity to work. This can be achieved by mobilizing leaders from business, government, and civil society around common agendas and by incentivizing collaborative action.

Women like Nataliya and Oksana should be provided with opportunities and training to pursue work commensurate with their skills and experience, going beyond traditionally female-dominated professions. Investment in women’s businesses and awareness and promotion of their products and services are equally important to change society’s perceptions about women’s skills and capabilities.

There is a direct correlation between gender equality and countries’ level of economic development and prosperity. A McKinsey study found that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth. Recent research from Harvard economists Goldin and Katz demonstrates that women are now more likely to work at almost every point in their lives, including into their 60s and 70s.

And most of these women report that they do it because they enjoy it. Those who are not working are more likely to be in poor health and have low savings. Notably, the Catalyst’s recent report demonstrated that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards achieved significantly higher financial performance than those with the lowest such representation. Smart companies increasingly recognise that having more women in the workforce and boards can lead to higher profits.

The economic empowerment of women is crucial for Ukraine’s overall prosperity and implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement. For the sake of the whole country, gender inequality must end and women should be able to contribute their full potential to national goals.

The time for change is now!

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