Blerta Cela: Women can talk politics too

March 7, 2019

Activists hold placards and shout slogans during the march by feminists in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, a they mark International Women's Day on March 8, 2018. - Participants of the march urged the Ukrainian authorities to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on the prevention of violence against women and domestic violence. Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

Originally published in Kyiv Post on March 6, 2019

Ukraine has made significant progress in gender equality. However, the pace of change on women’s decision-making remains fairly slow: Ukraine ranks behind 156 countries in women’s representation in parliament, and has one of the lowest numbers of women in political office.

Women make up 54 percent of Ukraine’s 44 million residents, yet make up only 12 percent of its parliamentarians (49 out of 423). This is one of the lowest levels in Europe, and far from the global average of 24 percent, and the global targets. Although women’s parliamentary representation has increased fourfold over Ukraine’s 27 years of independence and eight parliamentary elections, the country still lags behind many others.

The local-level situation is slightly better. In 2015 elections, women won 18 percent of the seats in local city councils and 15 percent of the seats in oblast councils. However, there are no women mayors in the oblast centres. The newly established decentralized territorial units (the so-called amalgamated communities) have seen a reduction in the proportion of women elected heads of communities: from 19 percent in 2015 to 17 percent in 2018.

Women’s participation in the executive and judicial branches remains marginal. As of March 2019, women hold only five of the 25 senior executive branch positions.

How is this possible in a country full of well-educated and talented women? What is keeping women back?  I interviewed women office-holders across Ukraine in order to answer this question.

Leadership journey of women office-holders

In the countdown to the upcoming elections Mariia Nikitina, a city member in Vyzhnytsia of Chernivtsi Oblast (one of only six women out of 26 council members), stresses the importance of women’s representation in decision making.

People have messaged me, called me, talked to me on the streets: they were so supportive of me running for office.” Mariia related that the people’s confidence in her abilities empowered her and gave her the strength to represent their needs and interests. As a civic activist for the rights of persons with disabilities – and a wheelchair user herself – Mariia was known in her community as a committed advocate for all residents. People believed in her.

Mariia did not win immediately; she had to overcome many obstacles related to her gender and her disability. “What can a woman in a wheelchair do to help us?” people asked when Mariia first ran for office in 2015. But with her peers’ support, she kept going and was elected to Vyzhnytsia City Council in 2016.

Mariia supports other women candidates’ efforts to overcome stereotypes and hurdles that limit their participation in decision making. Obstacles include men not wanting women to stand for office because it prevents them from taking care of family and children, which are still seen by many as women’s primary responsibility. Lack of money and confidence are other barriers that women encounter when they run for office.

To overcome double standards and to empower more women to run for office, Mariia recommends raising the awareness of both women and men and enhancing women’s leadership and fundraising skills.

“People should value someone’s professional qualities, regardless of their sex. Sometimes men neglect great ideas only because they were the ideas of women.” Mariia says. “We should see women as equal professionals and create an environment favourable for everyone, both women and men.”

Yuliia Kostenko, one of twelve female councillors (out of 84) elected in the 2015 local elections in Poltava Oblast, shared her leadership story. She noted that as a first-time candidate for an oblast council seat in Poltava, her electoral success was partly due to a party-level gender quota of 30 percent in local municipal elections. She overcame many challenges on the way to winning political office. “Usually, people roll their eyes when they see a female candidate standing for office,”says Yuliia.

During her electoral campaign, Yuliia spoke with many voters about her political agenda. This was also a great opportunity for voters to put their questions to her. Like many women candidates, Yuliia often received sexist comments such as “why are you running for office?” and “you are a future mum; how would you combine a political career and motherhood?” Yuliia’s response was simple, straightforward and illuminating: “Would you ever ask a man those questions?

For Olha Altunina, one of nine women councillors (out of 37) elected to Sloviansk city council in Donetsk Oblast in 2015, it took a while to gain respect at work. Not taken seriously at first, she continuously faced criticism about her ideas despite her extensive professional experience.

“You need to work twice as hard to earn the respect of male colleagues if you are a woman,” Olha says. “Especially when there are so few of us in decision-making positions.”

Women’s unequal representation and the unfair treatment that they face in public office is largely due to gender biases. “Many times I was silenced because men often perceive us as incompetent and not professional,” she says. “I had to make others take me seriously.” Constantly learning and enhancing her professional expertise, it took Olha over a year to gain more respect and become visible.

Other councillors, most of whom are men, don’t spend so much time on learning as me,” she emphasizes. “Being a woman in office requires two or three times as much work to get people to respect and listen to women’s ideas.

Olha highlighted the importance of electoral gender quotas, which have enhanced women’s participation. Unfortunately, there seem to be no consequences for failing to enforce quotas.

Decision-makers should encourage more women to stand for office and ensure that at least 30 percent of candidates on party lists are women,” she stresses. “In addition, it’s great when women leaders become mentors for potential female candidates.

Significant new research commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme has identified many of the challenges that women face in accessing political office. Based on interviews with 250 women, the research found that at the local level, most political parties do not pay attention to gender parity in their lists and activities. Further, women candidates have limited access to party resources to run their campaigns. Very few women occupy leading positions in business; and so because local politics is highly determined by business interests, women are under-represented in local politics. In addition, local media does not pay sufficient attention to gender issues and often exacerbates gender stereotypes by interviewing only men as experts, while portraying women primarily in traditional, stereotypical roles.

Many organizations have highlighted similar challenges that women face, including bias, ridicule, and gender-based discrimination. Rather than focusing on women’s professionalism and competence, their colleagues, the media and the general public often instead fixate on their personal attributes, superficialities such as clothing and hairstyles and their roles as mothers and wives. According to a case study on Violence against Women in Politics, by La Strada, covering 2010-2018, 59 percent of interviewed female politicians in Ukraine suffer from sexism, 47 percent from sexual harassment, 59 percent from psychological violence, 58 percent from verbal abuse and 62 percent from humiliation via social media networks and the media.

What needs to be done?

As Ukraine prepares itself for national and local elections, it is important to raise awareness of the need for equal representation and gender equality in leadership. Having more women in decision making will help Ukraine achieve its commitments to gender equality and human rights and will ensure that different perspectives inform policies at all levels.

Experience has shown that the most effective means to boost women’s political representation are through affirmative measures, such as quotas. Ukraine currently has local-level quotas. Ukraine is making other efforts to get more women elected to office by, for example, introducing a bonus system for parties. It is important to contribute to a legislative push in this election to help women spring to at least 40 percent representation in the parliament, including through enforcement mechanisms.

In addition, many actions can help boost women’s representation, including campaign finance reform. Training and mentoring programmes can be particularly effective, especially those that focus on leadership skills, working in teams, understanding political processes, campaign management, resource mobilization, protecting their votes and promoting gender equality. Special initiatives are needed to focus on media coverage of women candidates and leaders, highlighting women’s achievements as leaders and opinion shapers, inspiring them to stand for office and motivating them to be politically active. It is also important to raise awareness among politicians, religious figures, community leaders and the general population about ensuring that women are not discriminated against when pursuing political careers.

Beyond ensuing equal access and potentially parity in the number of representatives, it is also critical to ensure that women’s needs and concerns are fully addressed, particularly as Ukraine implements its reform agenda and works through the ongoing conflict, which affects women and men differently.

Ukraine needs more women in decision-making roles!