Path Yields to Those Who Tread on it: Gender Equality in Ukraine

 “Equal Opportunities” caucus members talk to the press

“It is all decided”, declares Member of Parliament Yuliya Kovalevska smiling as she walks into her office one early windter morning, “we are announcing it today at the Parliamentary session. High time to act.”  At this hour only rare steps may be heard in the corridors of the Ukrainian  Parliament (Verkhovna Rada). The floor and hallways, almost unused to women’s footwear since independence, are resonating in response to a confident stride.

Today the inter-party caucus “Equal Opportunities” is launched by three MPs – Iryna Herashchenko, Olena Kondratyuk, and Yuliya Kovalevska. They represent the opposition and the ruling majority, and stretch their hands across partisan isles that splinter the country’s supreme legislative body. In a highly polarized political environment, such alliances are, indeed, uncommon. Yet, this morning the three women-leaders manage to bringing together 12 of their colleagues—both women and men from various political forces—to promote legislative initiatives in the area of gender equality, equitable access to all spheres of public life, and combat against discrimination, domestic violence and abuse.

The leading values of the fledgling union are based on the belief that opportunities, constraints and impacts of any policy change should be analyzed as they affect both men and women. Only by including both perspectives, there may be an inclusive and holistic vision of sustainable development of Ukraine in the decades ahead.

Formation of the caucus is not an instantaneous event, though. It is empowered, inspired and profoundly backed by 17 years of UNDP work in the area of gender equality and domestic violence prevention and response in Ukraine through various initiatives that were supported by the governments of Sweden, Japan, and the European Union. Values, approaches and themes pertaining to gender equality have been consistently shared with political leaders of the country over the years to become a unifying social platform for a possible legislative confederacy. Feeling the demand, support, and bottom-up pressure from their constituencies, these MPs—while adversaries in other areas—ultimately get together for a common cause.


Having adopted the Beijing Platform of Action in 1995, the Government of Ukraine committed itself to a number of important developments in advancing women. It later re-confirmed its commitment to gender equality through acceptance of MDGs. Already in 1997 the first National Plan for Improving the Status of Women in Ukraine was adopted. Nonetheless, despite the government declarations, the situation “in the field” remained grave.

The gender pay gap constituted more than 27%. Difference in the life expectancy of women and men spanned more than a dozen years with men hardly lasting to see their retirement. Women’s representation in the Parliament hovered under 10%. Instances of domestic violence were kept undisclosed and went mostly unprosecuted. In this context the government reached out to UNDP for expert assistance and the flywheel of change began slowly picking up speed.

Such areas as political participation of women, promotion of egalitarian principles through education and integration of gender sensitivity into everyday civil service operations were considered one of the main avenues for joint efforts from the start. Yet, these steps needed to be preceded by and rooted in relevant policies and legal frameworks in order to make the national sustainable development agenda operational.

Consequently, the first in the CIS Law on Preventing Violence in the Family was adopted in 2001. As cooperation continued, the stage was set for the adoption of another major legislative tool – the 2005 Law on Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities of Women and Men, which for the first time stipulated inadmissibility of gender discrimination and lay down the foundations for operation of the national system of bodies, regulations, links and competencies that came to be known as the National Gender Machinery (NGM). Encouraged by this wave of positive developments in the legislative area, the Government adopted the targeted National Programme for Ensuring Gender Equality in Ukrainian Society until 2010. The oversight and implementation of the Programme rested with the newly established mechanism.

NGM, as a nascent structure, was strengthened by UNDP and spearheaded by the Ministry of Family, Youth and Sports. Extensive capacity-building exercises, trainings, round tables and twinning arrangements between national and foreign specialists increased the steering capability of the Ministry, which, by the summer of 2010, became well-equipped to elaborate the follow-up National Programme for 2011 – 2015. This time, at the advice and with UNDP facilitation, the draft Programme was created with a results-based management approach in mind. It constituted a consistent logical framework with extensive inputs from the civil society. For the first time the government and the NGOs worked side by side listening to each other and holding each other accountable for the ideas and projects envisaged in the draft Programme.

Sweeping changes came in late 2010 when a landslide Administrative Reform, initiated by the President, restructured the Cabinet of Ministers and annihilated the Ministry of Family Youth and Sports. With the key, steering element of the National Gender Machinery gone, implementation of gender policy in Ukraine was put into question. The NGM suffered a near fatal blow.

With strong support from the civil society, UNDP galvanized a proactive advocacy campaign to prevent gender equality from slipping off the government agenda. Finally, due to committed support of the international community, donor organizations and development cooperation partners, the functions as to advancing gender equality and combating domestic violence were transferred to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine in December 2011.


While working at the policy-level was considered a crucial task for advancing empowerment of women and combating domestic violence, UNDP took to investing into the human capital that was needed for the relevant laws to function. As cooperation with government employees of various levels showed, there needed to be a definite level of gender sensitivity, a personally lived understanding of what gender equality was about. Aspiring to bring this experience into the lives of specialists at the front line of implementing gender policy—civil servants, teachers and policemen—UNDP took a bold step. It launched the biggest gender equality cascade training programme ever organized in the CIS.

Dr. Oksana Kikinezhdi names UNDP trainings as the essential catalyst for fulfilling her career-long dream: building a university chair of gender studies. “I was one of the trainers for the UNDP cascades, but I realized that there needs to be an even stronger foundation for nurturing future teachers”, she narrates walking through university grounds at V. Hnatiuk Ternopil National Pedagogical University. “The UNDP cascades were not only life-changers for a lot of the teachers whom I instructed throughout the year, but they helped me see that my dream of creating a potent academic hub for training young professionals in gender equality is achievable. We are the first out of five such chairs in the country created with UNDP support”, she states with pride.

UNDP, partnering with state-run In-Service Training Centers for civil servants, teachers and line police officers, organized trainings for practical application of gender equality and domestic violence prevention principles in the respective thematic areas. Engagement of these government bodies instead of creation of new structures proved to be a major component in sustainability of the intervention.

In order to engage a largest possible number of participants, initial trainings for trainers were conducted. After four weeks of study, 250 specialists graduated from the UNDP-assisted TOT workshops. Then the trainers conducted seminars through the In-Service Training Centers for their respective audiences. As a result, 17 921 civil servants, 23 325 teachers and 9024 line police officers went through the cascade programme from fall 2009 through winter 2011. These numbers indicate a critical mass of specialists reached, when expertise and knowledge attained simply cannot be lost or ignored.

As the trainings went on, the first practical outcomes sprang up to serve as reassuring and inspirational examples in a variety of settings. Professors from Sumy State University, having attended one of the trainings on gender education, decided to make the university a more family-friendly environment by establishing a first in Ukraine volunteer-run university daycare center. “Studentsky Leleka” (Student Stork) model allows student-parents to combine their academic careers with responsible parenthood, and has already been piloted in four other universities across the country. On a different note, several women-members of Chernivtsi Oblast Council, having been part of the civil service trainings, have galvanized support from their deputy colleagues and have allocated a share of their own salaries to have a second print run of UNDP produced textbook “My rivni, my rizni” (We are equal, we are different) for local schools within the oblast.

While the funding for the cascades phased out, ongoing evidence from the field suggested that state-run centers had taken up initiative, and were continuing the training arrangements on their own. The word about the trainings is spread through professional informal networks and the Centers are flooded with requests about possible upcoming sessions on gender sensitivity. Teachers, police officers and civil servants themselves report the impact that these trainings have had on both their professional careers and personal perceptions. A transformational change experience was born.


Targeting working professionals with relevant and practical gender knowledge has been a crucial element of assisting the Ukrainian society on its path towards gender equality. At the same time, opinion polls have shown that Ukrainians indicate the education system and the family as most potent sources of learned patterned gender behaviour, decisions about future professions and further roles in life. In parallel, there came an ever-increased demand from the Ukrainian academia for support in strengthening gender research and institutionalizing gender studies within the higher education realm.

Responding to this, UNDP consistently supported the educational system of Ukraine through partnerships with the Ministry of Education and separate educational establishments. The last few years have shown a high pedigree of gender studies in Ukraine. As a result, with small seed grants, 5 Gender Studies Departments—the first ones of their kind in the CIS—were opened in various universities across the country. Staffed by committed and experienced researchers and pedagogues, these departments serve as forges for future academics and professionals, who will bring the knowledge and attitudes they now obtain into their workplace tomorrow.

In addition to higher education, UNDP helped conduct gender analysis of the educational standards for primary and secondary schools that pertain to subjects ranging from physics to history and art. Comprehensive recommendations on inclusion of the gender dimension into future curricula and textbooks were developed by specialists of the Ministry of Education and representatives of the academic world with assistance of UNDP. These recommendations were already being put to work as the Ministry embarked on the review of history educational programmes and curricula in 2011.


Over the years Ukrainian society has made progress towards greater gender equality and understanding of its importance. The recent emergence of the Equal Opportunities Caucus in Verkhovna Rada is a major milestone for Ukrainian politics. Despite ridicule from “mainstream” politicians who still believe that these are “feminist trifles”, the group has grown to 20 members in 3 months, and has acted as a major internal parliamentary watchdog bringing issues of gender equality into the spotlight. The caucus’ fruitful activity, ranging from a joint draft legislation on increasing sanctions against domestic violence perpetrators and preventing cutbacks in payments to single mothers to vociferous public campaigns decrying discriminatory statements by Ukrainian politicians, has sent a potent message to the Ukrainian public. Voices demanding change have been heard and put to work.

At the local level, the social fabric is slowly becoming more receptive to the idea of equality of opportunity for women and men, as the older stereotypes give way to more egalitarian models of behaviour. The teachers are promoting a gender sensitive curriculum. Due to UNDP support, more than 63% of all district police officers in the country have been exposed to intensive training on prevention of and response to domestic violence. Thousands of civil servants have learned to assess local development plans and priorities through the prism of gender equality. The chairs of gender studies are fostering research and preparing the specialists who will ultimately bring their values into the workplace.

Nonetheless, this path is far from reaching its end, and advancements have resembled “two steps forward and one step back”. The draft Law for further amending the existing Ukrainian legislation and introducing, amongst other innovations, gender quotas to ensure more equitable representation of women in Parliament was taken up by the Caucus and actively lobbied in the relevant Verkhovna Rada Committee. Yet, after heated debate, the draft was shot down and returned for improvements, not having made it even to the first vote. While last year Ukraine ranked 64th in the Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum (partially due to the low participation of women in the decision-making processes), this situation may be even more volatile after the upcoming elections. Experts predict that the new mixed electoral system in absence of equality safeguards (quotas) may bring the number of women in the new convocation to record lows.

While there is no doubt that the only key to harmonious and sustainable development, to a mature democracy and improved livelihoods lies in full utilization of the talents, abilities and aspirations of the whole nation, there still is a need for a massive mindset change in Ukraine. Attitudes and beliefs take time to be molded and become social norm. The path en route to equality is a long and winding one. Yet, it will surely yield to those who tread on it.

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