Ukraine's other half

International Women's Day brings disappointment and hope for the sex largely excluded from power in Kyiv
| 03-27-2012
Police break up a rally in front of the Cabinet in Kyiv in March 2010. Activists from the group FEMEN demanded posts for women in the newly elected all-male presidential administration.
Police break up a rally in front of the Cabinet in Kyiv in March 2010. Activists from the group FEMEN demanded posts for women in the newly elected all-male presidential administration.

Springtime in Ukraine – time once again to remind women about their two vital main roles – to be mothers – after all, there's a demographic crisis – and to be beautiful – evidently, to promote tourism from abroad? That's what top Ukrainian politicians are saying, anyway. President Viktor Yanukovich implored an international audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, "Come to Ukraine to see our beautiful girls!" In advertising this summer's Euro 2012 soccer championship and its slogan "Switch on Ukraine," he said, "In order to switch on Ukraine, it's enough to see it by your own eyes, when the chestnut trees start to blossom, when it gets warmer and women in Ukrainian cities start undressing. To see such beauty is marvelous!"

We can't measure the results of this "advertising" just yet, but we may be able to identify some problems.

Sexist speeches from high-level politicians have become more commonplace in Ukraine as of late. In spring 2010, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said, "Some say our government is too large, others that there are no women – there's no one to look at during cabinet meetings. They're all boring faces... With all respect to women, conducting reforms is not women's business." His words caught international attention, and The Guardian printed a story with the headline "Ukrainian women berate 'Neanderthal' PM for sexist remarks."

Azarov's speech made it clear that he and many others at the top see Ukrainian women as a "beautiful commodity" – something to look at, perhaps to inspire politicians. Moreover, in his March 8 speech for International Women's (Rights) Day, the prime minister didn't touch on any real problems. He didn't promise to provide better state support for parents with children. Instead, he wished that spring would bring women "blossoming" and "bright colors."

The bright colors of spring have actually brought several unpleasant surprises for Ukrainian women. Just before the holiday, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church appealed to the Verkhovna Rada on prohibiting abortion, and on March 12, deputy Andriy Shkil introduced a bill proposing a ban. Under the existing law, women may receive abortions within twelve weeks of conception.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has also seen several prominent examples of gender-based violence, particularly rapes, left unsolved by authorities. The ongoing Oksana Makar case has dominated headlines in recent weeks, elicited protests, and at least one petition to the president. On the night of March 9, in the city of Mykolayiv, three men lured 19-year-old Makar into one of their apartments, where they raped her. One attempted to strangle her to death and then, thinking he had succeeded, raped her again. The men left her at a construction site near a fire, which caused severe burns over 55 percent of her body. Makar survived and remains in critical condition, with both of her feet and her right arm amputated. There are suspicions that the two of the alleged suspects are from families with high social status and resources – in fact, they had been released from jail without bail. The petition by Accion Positiva, a Spanish feminist group, concludes, "We are concerned that the law enforcement is not doing its job in regard to this serious incident and shows no interest in investigating the facts and bringing the perpetrators to justice." Some debates surrounding the case have featured victimization and morality issues among the principal explanations of gender-based violence – basically, if she spent time drinking in bars, getting raped was somehow her own fault.

How could such an "object" ever hope to talk and protest, let alone participate on a national political stage?