Will Parliament set an example for the generation of equality?

October 24, 2020

Photo credit: Andriy Krepkikh / UNDP Ukraine

Op-ed co-authored by Dafina Gercheva, UNDP Resident Representative to Ukraine and Olena Kondratiuk, Vice Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine

Originally published at the official webportal of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on 24 October 2020

The future belongs to the generation of equality. The UN hopes that this generation, which will soon come to the fore in society, will be an agent for positive change in all areas of life, and will help humankind achieve the 2030 sustainable development goals.

One of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that all UN members have committed to is Goal 5 on gender equality. We believe that the generation of equality is fully capable of achieving this goal. But to do so, they need our help, mentorship, and institutional framework. Smart, strong, independent and successful women who have achieved everything themselves – like the late justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginzburg – are role models for many women and girls. However, leading public institutions must also set an example to society. And what better institution is there than the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, which performs the function of representing society in a democracy, to set an example in this regard?

In recent years, women’s representation in Ukrainian Parliament has increased. This is a positive trend resulting from joint efforts by multiple organizations, movements for equal rights of men and women, and women MPs themselves.

Only 13 women (3 percent of all Members of Parliament) were elected to the Verkhovna Rada of the 1st convocation. Now, in the present Verkhovna Rada of the 9th convocation, this share has jumped to 21 percent. However, on average, 25 percent parliamentarians in the world are women, and in the European Union it is 30 percent or more. For example, in the Spanish parliament, 44 percent of MPs are women, occupying 154 out of 350 seats. The Ukrainian Parliament clearly still has some way to go.

One recent achievement of the equality movement in Ukraine was the enforcing of the 40 percent quota of women candidates at the local elections in Ukraine to be held on 25 October 2020. For the first time in Ukraine, action have been taken to show that society is ready to give women authority that were not previously entrusted with.

We expect Ukrainian women and responsible political parties to take advantage of this new window of opportunity. The quota will increase women’s representation in local and regional councils, their participation, and their role in community life. And it will bring Ukraine one step closer to achieving Goal 5 of the SDGs.

However, a closer look at the situation reveals significant pitfalls. If certain negative trends continue, Ukraine will not achieve gender parity in the public authorities by 2030. Unfortunately, we have recently seen some regression in this sphere within the Ukrainian Parliament.

The current government of Ukraine, which is formed by the Parliament and is subject to parliamentary oversight by the Verkhovna Rada, is also gender misbalanced compared to others in leading democracies: For example, the Government of Canada led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is formed on a 50-50 basis, and the Government of Finland has more women than men, including Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

It is not uncommon for women in local councils to be tasked with overseeing education, healthcare, culture, youth and other social issues. They are mostly deprived of the opportunity to influence decision-making on the budget, assets, infrastructure, etc. So a mere increase in the level of women’s representation in the Parliament and at the local level is not enough. Who makes decisions at the national and community level is key.

This situation in general is unfair, as women make up 54 percent of Ukraine’s population, but are still underrepresented in public administration and – most importantly – cannot influence key decision-making.

We have to realize that we will never build a just society in Ukraine – a country of shared welfare, equal rights and opportunities, with happy and successful people – unless we kick-start institutional change and first achieve gender parity in the places where policies are shaped.

How can the Parliament of Ukraine become an example of such parity, a success story for the generation of equality?

To do this, we have to review the principles of operation of the Parliament and its Secretariat, and adopt a gender-sensitive legal framework to make sure that women are present in parliamentary committees and the government of Ukraine not just in equal numbers, but in positions of equal importance.

With the support of the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme and the leadership of the Verkhovna Rada have established the Parliamentary Reform Office. As part of our joint efforts to pursue gender equality, in December 2019 the Human Resources Strategy of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine until 2022 was developed and approved. The Action Plan for the implementation of this Strategy for 2020 envisages the introduction of gender equality standards in the Secretariat. It includes conducting an annual gender audit, providing training to staff, developing guidelines and manuals, and appointing gender focal points in the units of the Secretariat. UNDP experts have developed and published a manual on gender mainstreaming and institutional capacity building for the VRU Secretariat in comprehensive gender integration.

In fact, the majority of employees of the Verkhovna Rada Secretariat, or 68 percent, are women. Yet only 44 percent of those holding the positions of heads of structural units of the Secretariat, or their deputies, are women. The Head of the Secretariat and his six deputies are all men. This has to change.

Another critical task, but a more distant prospect, is to achieve equality in the formation of committees of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Of the 23 committees of the Parliament of the 9th convocation, only five are headed by women. Moreover, the key parliamentary committee on the budget, with 34 members, has only four women members. No women have ever been appointed either the head or first deputy head of the committee.

Finally, gender auditing of draft laws should become a mandatory step in law-making. Society is made up of men and women, and almost every law affects both women and men. However, the impact of laws on each gender may not be the same.

Therefore, experts say that a legal examination of the impact of legislation on each gender should take place before a draft law is approved. This examination should be an integral part of the legislative process, following the widespread practice of many successful countries.

What should the mechanism for such an examination be? In our opinion, it should consist of three stages. At the first stage, when preparing a draft law for first reading, the Main Research and Expert Department of the VRU Secretariat should check the proposed legislation’s compliance with gender equality principles.

At the second stage, the draft law should be examined by a designated lead committee, the secretariat of which has an appointed gender focal point with professional knowledge and skills to be responsible for the gender legal examination of legislation.

At the third stage, during the preparation of draft law for second reading, it has to be examined by the Main Legal Department of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Therefore, respective experts on gender should be present in the Department.

Gender legal examinations help lawmakers adopt better laws that are equally fair to men and women. Society will only benefit from such parity, as it makes it impossible to introduces legislation that benefits one gender at the expense of the other.

For decades, status of women in the workplace has been debated everywhere – from the parliamentary assembly hall to the courtroom. Working women are often subject to gender bias, despite there being numerous laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination against women in the workplace. Thus, gender-balanced laws are needed to ensure there is a level playing field. Research shows that when women are active in the workplace, when equal conditions for self-fulfillment are shaped, the entire country benefits through the improved social and economic outcomes.

European practice shows that women need to be involved as much as possible in government institutions and decision-making. It is the norm, and a guarantee of efficiency and success, in many European countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, where standards of living are quite high. One of the secret ingredients in their recipe for success is gender parity, gender budgeting at all levels, and gender examination in the legislative process. Ukraine has a huge untapped potential to achieve gender equality in all areas of life, which could be fully unlocked through adopting these European best practices.