“I only won the respect of my colleagues by fighting,” Yulia Eremenko tells me.
A businesswoman from the southern city of Kherson, Eremenko has seen Ukraine’s local political system from the inside. After helping the Ukrainian army when war broke out in the east of the country in 2014, she ran for city council in a national political party - but didn’t get in. Three years later, when a council member died, it was Eremenko’s turn to join the Kherson council.
Yet other party members tried to “come to an agreement” with Eremenko, she says. In exchange for money, the idea was that Eremenko would refuse to take her seat on the council - as mandated by the original candidate list she ran on - and another party member would take the vacant seat.
“I said I’m not going to sell my seat. I don’t need money. I’m going to work for the good of society, I also think I deserve to take a deputy’s seat. Then one of the candidates said: ‘Better you take the money and buy yourself a dress.’ It was very unpleasant. I believe that women are capable of earning money by themselves,” Eremenko tells me. “A woman has to prove her competence, the ability to stand next to men. You have to put in more effort.”
Eremenko’s story is not unique, but it does shed light on how Ukraine’s system of gender quotas for political participation is working in practice. This system was written into Ukraine’s legislation on political parties in 2013, and states that factions which take 30% of women into parliament will receive additional funding. The country’s legislation on local elections also provides for the participation of at least 30% of women in candidate lists. This year, the system received an update when Ukraine’s parliament adopted a new Electoral Code with a mandatory gender quota.
Party election lists feature over 40% of candidates as women, but the percentage of those who make it into their seat is much lower. Women in Ukrainian politics face a series of barriers: societal stereotypes, discrimination and political machines that meet gender quotas on paper, but not in spirit.
While studies show public support for the idea of gender balance in Ukrainian politics, the reality is different. Gender researcher Svitlana Repik points out that in 2014 only 12% of deputies of the Ukrainian parliament were women. The country’s regional councils showed a similar percentage of female deputies, but in district, city, settlement and village councils the percentage rises - 23%, 28%, 46% and 51%, respectively. Repik suggests that women’s chances of being elected in the country depends on the level of institution they are aiming for - the lower it is, the more chances women have.
This hypothesis was confirmed during Ukraine’s decentralisation reform, Repik states. Prior to the reform, which was meant to devolve power and resources to new administrative entities, about half of village council chairpersons were women. When the reform started in 2016, local councils received more powers and larger budgets, and the percentage of women heading these councils decreased significantly - 15% of the leaders of Ukraine’s new and enlarged local councils are women.
“This [lack of representation] doesn’t only apply to the political sphere,” Repik says. “In other spheres, for example, business, the representation of women is also very low. Very few women own businesses or occupy leadership positions.”
The reasons for this are complex, Repik says. On the one hand, the low representation of women in spheres associated with power and resources is connected with stereotypes and societal expectations. “Society assigns women the role of mothers and housewives. Public opinion research confirms expectations regarding the priority of family obligations in women's lives. Almost 70% of men believe that the most important role of women in society is to take care of their own home and family. Women spend almost twice as much time at housework than men. And they could spend this time, for example, on their professional development,” Repik comments.
On the other hand, the lack of financial resources also affects women interested in business and politics, as women often receive lower wages.
“This gap is also influenced by the vertical of power. Women are less likely to occupy leadership positions and, accordingly, receive lower salaries, and that women are more likely to work in low-paid professions. And that they choose these professions also because of stereotypes,” Repik says.
“In all spheres, there should be movement towards gender balance. You should not limit women in choosing a profession. You should not consider leadership as a male quality, you need to develop it among women,” Repik notes, opening that gender quotas for candidate lists can be a temporary but effective tool for engaging women in politics.
Some political parties have figured out how to deliberately circumvent Ukraine’s gender quotas.
“The gender quota is obligatory only when nominating candidates, so 18 days before the elections, candidates can refuse to run, allegedly saying that they changed their minds. After the elections, they can also refuse their mandate,” explains Olha Kotsyuruba, senior legal expert at the OPORA civil network.
According to Kotsyuruba, some parties have specifically looked for “technical candidates” in order to fulfil their gender quotas. Some even published ads calling for people ready to join their party lists and, after registration, refuse to run. OPORA observers learned about these cases from private conversations with party representatives, and they themselves found ads online and in newspapers.
For example, in Kremenchuk, Poltava region, the European Solidarity party registered its candidates for the recent local elections in October. Following registration, 13 people, including five women, refused to run for the election, thus upsetting the gender balance on the list. In response, the electoral commission revoked the list. But the party, led by former president Petro Poroshenko, sued and won. According to Kotsuruba's observations, in similar cases, Ukrainian courts often side with political parties.
“There are also several cases when a local election commission registered a list which did not observe the gender quota and no one appealed against this decision,” says Kotsyuruba.
In addition, there have been cases when electoral commissions highlight non-compliance with gender quotas in their candidate lists, and parties ask for an opportunity to correct the problem. “In fact, they were changing the list. But at least there was a result: they were forced to submit a new list in compliance with the quota,” Kotsuruba notes.
“The illusion of equality”
Ukraine’s gender quota has made it possible for women who want to be involved in politics to be elected, but candidates face discrimination. As Ukraine’s National Democratic Institute notes, during the recent local election campaign, candidates were better informed about discrimination thanks to a new initiative which documented cases of sexism and provided candidates with free legal and psychological assistance.
Ukrainian Women’s Fund reported that about a third of candidates in ten regions monitored by the organisation were subject to various types of violence, including verbal threats, harassment on social media, negative media coverage, attacks on campaign posters and physical violence directed at campaign staff. The National Democratic Institute also received reports of similar incidents of violence during the election campaign from female candidates in other regions.
According to a study by the La Strada organisation, during 2010-2018, 59% of women engaged in Ukrainian politics suffered sexism, 47% - sexual harassment, 59% - psychological violence and 58% - verbal abuse. Most women in politics face humiliation on social media and mass media - the La Strada study states 62% of women in Ukrainian politics had done so. During the recent local election campaign, one comment on a candidate’s page ran like this: “Get married and have children while you still can! And go into politics when you’re a grandmother, if you want, when you have even the slightest life experience. Women are children and a good family.”
“Stereotypes used to be more prominent. Candidates were constantly asked questions about marriage and children. This year it has decreased”
Ukrainian legislation provides for mechanisms to protect against insults, threats and violence, says Khristina Kot, head of the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association. During the election, Kot, a lawyer, recommended that candidates facing discrimiantion contact the police, Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, the hotline for free legal aid and women human rights organisations. Kot’s organisation also recommends suing in defence of an individual’s honour, dignity and business reputation - e.g. a defamation case - and is currently supporting two defamation lawsuits.
“It’s important to talk about problems so we do not entertain the following illusion, which sometimes legislators and deputies try to create: ‘What else do you need, there are quotas, there is the right to vote, there is the right to run in elections. Everything is there. What else do you need?’” Kot comments. “We cannot regulate all the issues with legislation. It is impossible to fit every action into a normative act. Here, it’s an issue of legal culture, awareness, attitude towards women as equal subjects and respect for their rights. Unfortunately, in our culture, this is not yet very developed. And this is reflected in political parties.”
“We would vote for you at a beauty contest”
According to the OPORA civic network, 44% of candidates in the recent local elections were women - 10% more than in the previous local elections in 2015.
Most women candidates ran on the lists of Oleh Lyashka’s Radical Party, Homeland (Batkivshchyna), led by Yulia Tymoshenko, and the Our Region party - 46% of these parties’ candidates were women. The nationalist Svoboda party and the party of blogger Anatoliy Shariy had the least - 42%.
However, this does not mean that we will see these numbers reflected in the final results, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund noted. Vita Dumanska, CEO of the CHESNO public movement, analysed that a third of the deputies on Kyiv City Council are women. This is more than Ukraine’s last local elections in 2015, when 19% of women were elected to the council. The situation is similar in other cities: there are more women deputies compared to the previous elections, but fewer than at the stage of running. The reason, according to Vita Dumanska, may be that party lists were often headed by men, and women were placed at the end of the list.
During the election campaign, Yulia Eremenko, who ran for Kherson City Council, was numbered in fifth place for the list of Oleh Lyashka’s Radical Party. She believes that if it were not for the gender quota, she would not have been assigned it. However, the party did not get enough votes to get into the city council, and Eremenko did not become a deputy. In total, the percentage of women who made it into Kherson city council is 25%.
Eremenko notes the sexism towards candidates during the election. “When I told voters about the only woman candidate to be mayor of Kherson, they would remark on her beauty rather than her competence. When we, together with other candidates for city council, went to campaign, the voters told us: ‘We would vote for you at the beauty contest.’ You’ll agree that a male candidate would not be told this, even if he is very attractive,” she says.
“Stereotypes used to be more prominent. Candidates were constantly asked questions about marriage and children. This year it has decreased,” - comments Yulia Kostenko, a candidate for Poltava city council. After a negative experience in the Svoboda party, she decided to run for another party - European Solidarity - and became a deputy. Six people from the party made it into the city council, and half of them were women. In total, the percentage of women on Poltava city council is 30%, and at the regional council - 23%.
The Ukrainian Women’s Fund concluded that the gender quota has worked, but not as effectively as it was supposed to. “Due to the gender quota being observed, there were more women in the electoral lists of parties. However, the 43% of women in the electoral lists did not lead to this level of representation among the elected candidates,” the foundation notes.
Update, 25 November 2020: This article was amended to reflect a full original quote of Svitlana Repik that had been omitted in translation.