Gender inequality in Ukraine during the war: closed borders, personal tragedies, and demographic challenges

29.11.2022 Maryna Ovchynnikova

Starting from February 24, the feminist views of Ukrainian women and men have been put to the test by social contradictions and the war. Life has changed and so has the discourse on gender issues. It is known that public discussion is the key to the development of society, so in this article we will try to talk openly about the contradictions that are currently transforming gender inequality and making it virtually unprecedented from the perspective of many latest generations in our area.

Mandatory mobilization of men and prohibition to cross the border

It is necessary to start with the fact that the citizenship of any country involves a list of rights and – what is important – duties for everyone, although few consciously sign up for them. Article 65 of the Constitution states that the protection of the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine is the duty of its citizens. And certain rights in special cases, in particular, in case of martial law, may also be limited under the Constitution. However, there is no mention of the gender aspect of these restrictions anywhere. So, although after 01 October 2022, women, like men, must register at enlistment centres according to a specified list of specialties, they may still go abroad at will, and summonses are not served on the streets. Lawyer Mariia Levchenko comments that the border guards do not check any documents of women who do not serve in the Armed Forces. Men of the conscription age are forbidden to leave the country due to the imposition of martial law.

For Ukrainian women, service in the Armed Forces is a right that part of the feminist movement fought for a long time. Officially, women were allowed to serve in combat specialties in various types of troops only recently. The question of gender equality during the war is usually considered in our country from this advantageous perspective: in the summer, the Ministry of Defence reported that more than 38,000 women were serving in the ranks of the Armed Forces, of which 5,000 were on the front lines. According to them, these numbers are among the largest among NATO member countries.

A soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a local resident inspect a destroyed house in the Kherson Oblast, Zahradivka, May 2022. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that service in the army is the very right of Ukrainian women, which they can use or not. At the same time, for Ukrainian men during the full-scale war, this is indeed a duty, the evasion of which results in liability. This is a logical continuation of the mandatory conscription for military service of men who have reached the age of 18 (in October 2022, conscription was cancelled for the period of martial law).

Petitions and draft laws regularly appear in Ukraine and abroad to lift the travel ban or expand the categories of men who are allowed to go abroad. One of the petitions gathered more than 27,000 signatures, after which President Volodymyr Zelenskyi responded: the ban would not be lifted until the end of martial law.

Arguments “for” the ban usually begin with generalizations such as if everyone leaves, then no one will defend the country, and the invaders will easily occupy the cities. In particular, President Zelenskyi commented in a recent interview that if no people were left in Ukraine, “we would lose our state.” Then pragmatic arguments are presented: people should pay taxes here in Ukraine, not abroad, they should support the economy, and everyone can be useful for the defence of the country. But finally, it all boils down to the fact that it should just be embarrassing to talk about it now. For example, Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, stated that the desire to leave the country (for men) and the distribution of such petitions is a manifestation of cowardice and unacceptable behaviour during the war.

At the same time, materials appear in the Western media from time to time that the ban on leaving the country during the war violates human rights. Similar texts, in particular, were published by The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Conversation, and The Globe and Mail. Also, in late October, the National Anticorruption Agency suddenly announced that the current ban does not comply with the norms of the Constitution. They advise not to cancel restrictions but to improve the regulatory framework. According to experts, this should “remove social tension and corruption risks.”

The current situation has a reverse side: if a man today must fight, then a woman, accordingly, has a duty to stay alone with the children while the partner is fighting or waiting for a summons. Only a woman can now legally take children to a safe place and take care of them there. For a man, on the contrary, staying with a child is now a right, not a duty, and the majority of men can only use this right here, in Ukraine.

A girl near a bunker in Severodonetsk, April 2022. Photo: RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP via Getty Images

Stories of men going abroad — a comedy or a tragedy?

According to Andrii Demchenko, a representative of the State Border Service, they detain an average of 30-40 people with forged documents every day at checkpoints or in the so-called green area, that is, outside checkpoints. In addition, everyday servicemen do not let about 150 people cross the border, most of whom are men aged 18-60. It turns out that officially more than 5,000 people try to cross the border every month without success – that’s 45,000 since the beginning of the war. Of course, it is impossible to count “successful cases” of crossing.

Usually, such stories are presented in the media as outrageous or funny – men who want to leave Ukraine are always portrayed as anti-heroes deserving of public condemnation and ridicule. For example, “Studio Quarter 95” (once founded by the current president of Ukraine), while touring Europe (!), presented a story of a man of conscription age on the border with Poland, who dreams of seeing his wife, but the female border guard does not let him cross the border. The level and appropriateness of humour surprised many, judging by the comments under the video.

However, in reality, stories of men going abroad often have much more to do with tragedy than a comedy.

In late March, servicewoman Yaryna Chornohuz published a post on her Facebook page “about sexism, which in wartime can turn into a real tragedy for a child.” Yaryna joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2020, and her ex-husband then took over the custody of their daughter. In the first days of the invasion, the father of 7-year-old Orysia decided to evacuate her to Europe with a family of his friends and planned to join her a few weeks later. But the border guards did not accept any evidence that the child’s mother served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and did not let him cross the border three times, so the child ended up staying abroad without her relatives for a month and a half.

The Border Service suggested that the husband should have Yaryna deprived of her parental rights – only then they would let him leave the country. Only after the post on Facebook, one of the chiefs of the Border Service responded and gave the father his personal permission to cross the border.

Ukrainian citizens at the Medica pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland, 25 February 2022. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI / AFP via Getty Images

In April, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the Law on the exemption from military service, in particular, of one of the parents of a minor child, if the other serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, regardless of gender. But whether it will help to cross the border in case of need is not specified in the text of the Law.

A more tragic story, without a happy end, happened to Serhii (name changed) and his family. Serhii’s wife became seriously ill in late 2021. Before the full-scale war, she was treated in Ukraine, but in February it became dangerous to stay in Zaporizhia, so she decided to go abroad with her 15-year-old daughter.

They ended up in Lithuania and received funding for treatment. At first, the prognosis was good, the daughter wrote to her father that everything was fine and that they would soon return home healthy. But in early August the woman felt worse. Serhii began to look for a way to be there to support, help, and simply take this burden off his minor daughter.

They began to prepare documents: the daughter collected certificates and sent them by mail. Serhii received them, had them translated, notarized, etc. But the border guards still did not let the man leave the country. In September, Serhii got an appointment with the deputy head of the Border Service, after which he waited for an answer for almost a month. As a result, he received a refusal in October. His wife was getting worse and worse, and Serhii was preparing a lawsuit. But on October 22, his wife died in the hospital without having seen her husband. All this time, only her 15-year-old daughter remained with her mother. After the death of his wife, Serhii finally received permission to leave to take the body.

What do they say in the Ukrainian feminist community?

In the feminist community of Ukraine, travel restrictions for men are called “payment for privileges” and are a consequence of patriarchy. This, in particular, was stated by Tamara Zlobina, the editor-in-chief of the “Gender in Details” resource, in her post on Instagram. It is worth noting that now, when the gender roles of a male defender and a female family guardian have actually been approved at the legislative level, the majority of the feminist community does not find it necessary to talk about it for various reasons.

“To make refugees so gendered is a rather unprecedented decision. There is a lot to rethink and reflect on, particularly from a feminist point of view. I think it is incorrect to ignore men’s problems because we deal only with women’s ones. It’s about reproducing ideas about what a man and a woman have, can, and should do; it doesn’t only work in one direction,” comments sociologist and researcher Oksana Dutchak.

Refugees from Ukraine in Poland, Medyka, 25 February 2022. Photo: Michael Kappeler / picture alliance via Getty Images

According to Dutchak, women now enjoy privileges exclusively based on their gender. Moreover, a woman may have no children, but the very possibility of giving birth to them one day gives any woman opportunities today that men do not have. The sociologist considers this approach very patriarchal. “I have no answer as to how appropriate this decision was, but it is clear that it was the easiest and fastest decision of all possible ones,” says the researcher.

The experts note that the clearly positive aspects of gender politics during the war include the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which Ukraine signed in 2011 and ratified only now under pressure from the EU. “Gender in Details” expert Iryna Dedusheva separately emphasizes the final replacement of the Soviet “Men’s Day” with the Day of Male and Female Defenders of Ukraine, as well as cases of border crossing by transgender men (men who were given the female gender at birth).

The human rights organization Outright International conducted research and provided recommendations on how to remove obstacles to the departure of transgender people from Ukraine during the war. In particular, it is said that Ukraine still uses the medical classification that defines “transsexualism” as a psychiatric disorder (although the WHO has classified transgenderism no longer as a disorder since January 2022). However, even under current regulations, transgender women can receive a “white ticket” and an exemption from military service. Unfortunately, it hardly works in practice because the military medical commission, which is rarely sensitive to LGBTIQ issues, has the final word on assessing a person’s suitability for military service.

Choosing between security and family

Maria (name changed) lives in London under the Homes for Ukraine program and works in the film industry. She left following an invitation to work because she lost her previous job due to the war. Maria’s boyfriend is waiting for her (or for the victory and the cancellation of martial law) in Ukraine; they can see each other once every few months, when the girl comes back home.

“Whenever I say that my boyfriend is in Ukraine, I am asked whether he is fighting. And when I say that he isn’t, that he is just a man and they do not let him out, then at first everyone asks: “What, he can’t even go on holiday? And then they say that it is unfair and that it is gender discrimination,” says Maria.

Road sign “Border control zone” on the Ukrainian-Polish border “Krakovets – Korczowa” checkpoint near the village of Krakovets, Lviv Oblast. Photo: Pavlo Palamarchuk / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

According to Maria, several of her female friends with children, who were also granted asylum in England, have already returned to Ukraine because they were not ready to part with their husbands for so long and be alone with their children.

Sociologist Oksana Dutchak adds that the Western media criticized the decision to close the borders for men, in particular because the ban actually stopped many women from leaving for safe territories, especially with small children, as they were afraid that they simply could not cope without their husbands. Or they even left, but it turned out to be too difficult and they had to return a few months later.

“Of course, it is difficult to manipulate risks of what is worse for a child: not seeing a father, perhaps for several years, or not hearing sirens and not risking being hit by a russian missile every day. From the point of view of physical security, the choice is obvious. From a psychological point of view, every family must make a balanced decision,” comments psychologist Vitalina Ustenko.

Ustenko adds that the period of pregnancy and the first years of a child’s life is very sensitive and vulnerable for women. At this time, women need much more attention, support, help, peace, and security, which is not the case in wartime. It is extremely difficult to remain without support during such a period.

“Gender in Details” expert Iryna Dedushova also emphasizes much more care work for women: “It is women, as a rule, who are entrusted with the care of their children and older people in peacetime. The war has exacerbated these processes in families where men have gone to the front, as well as in situations where a woman is forced to go abroad.” Usually, women with children find it particularly difficult to stay abroad because, in addition to their husbands, they often lose the rest of their relatives who helped them with care work in Ukraine.

In May, “Gender in Details” launched a flash mob #my_heroine about female heroism during the war, which often goes unnoticed. Dmytro Krapyvenko, a journalist and now a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, also wrote about the “feat of his wife”: “For six months in the army, I will be honest: I have not done anything significant or outstanding. And she … took the children out of Kyiv, which was heavily bombed and shelled. The western direction was blocked; she used side roads, through a million roadblocks with two grown children and two cats! Three days to the Polish border. She quickly found a prestigious well-paid job. Finding comfortable housing in Lublin, crowded with refugees, is a wild quest, but you can do it. Leisure, a sports club for our young son; school and extra work for our older daughter – you did all this, I could only hum something approvingly on the phone. I am proud of you. Thank you for your feat!”

A resident of Mariupol with her child waiting for evacuation, April 2022. Photo: Leon Klein / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

We should also remember the educational institutions that have switched to distance learning since the outbreak of the war. It is easy to imagine what this means for parents of children of preschool and primary school age. Someone had to stay at home with them all the time, and it was usually not men, just like during the pandemic.

On the positive side, the experts note that women who suffered from domestic violence were able to escape abroad. Psychologist Vitalina Ustenko says that in her practice she has already met a dozen women who were helped by the war in Ukraine to overcome their internal war and escape from a domestic abuser. These women received refuge in other countries and knew for sure that their husbands would not be able to reach them there.

Demographic consequences of the war and Ukraine of the future

According to UN data, more than 12.5 million people have left Ukraine since the outbreak of the war. About 5 million of them have already returned home. It is difficult to imagine how many citizens of Ukraine would have ended up abroad if the ban on the departure of men had not been announced on the very first day of the war. After all, it was the impossibility of going with the whole family that stopped many women from evacuating and is still stopping them. This is also one of the main reasons that forces women to return to Ukraine during the war.

Moreover, the demographic crisis threat will remain a big risk for gender equality even after the war. Experts are already complaining that if Ukrainian men and women who are currently abroad do not return, our country will face serious economic challenges because there will be more pensioners than the working population. At the same time, the birth rate was low even before the war.

Researcher Oksana Dutchak comments that with a high probability, after the war, we will have attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom. Right now petitions to ban abortions substantiated with arguments about restoring the population are regularly registered.

“It is complicated to predict how everything will turn out after the war – everything will be complicated and ambiguous. Some of the women who managed to integrate will probably decide to stay. Women who have where to return most probably will come back. The big question here is what the state will do so that more people return, not less. Because the conditions should be, if not better than those abroad, then at least tolerable ones. This is a question of housing and work, but also a question of social infrastructure — whether educational and medical institutions will function at a proper level to encourage families to return,” comments Dutchak.

The full-scale war has shown that any categoricalness can only be situational, and the conditions that existed in peaceful or partially peaceful times are simply impossible now. But it is necessary to call things by their names and not to hide the truth: gender inequality in Ukraine, due to closed borders and mobilization of men, is simply unprecedented.

A woman who has lost her job or home can count on all of this especially abroad. A man who has lost his job or home has far fewer options. According to Gradus Research, money and work are now the biggest needs of both displaced people and people who remain at home. At least 5 million Ukrainians lost their jobs because of the war.

This war is certainly unprecedented, so unprecedented decisions are expected. But it is necessary to make them thoughtfully or correct them over time, involving experts and studying public opinion. A recent KMIS poll showed that the majority of Ukrainians do not condemn refugees – even if they are men of conscription age. Society is heterogeneous; people have different circumstances, fortunes, personal challenges, etc. Any political decisions that decide the future of millions on a single basis are discriminatory as they create tension and will have long-term consequences. Should such decisions become the foundation of Ukraine’s future?

Author: Maryna Ovchynnikova

Prepared under the auspices of the Association “Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine” as part of the implementation of the grant project “The Women in News with WAN-IFRA”. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the partners.

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