Being a Woman Elected Official in Ukraine: Realities, Challenges and Success Stories

December 22, 2020

Strengthening the role of women in politics and decision-making requires providing them with access to politics on an equal footing with men. To a great extent, this can be achieved through women obtaining MP or councillor mandates

Photo credit: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin / UNDP

About 20 million women live currently in Ukraine, which is about 54 percent of the total population. In spite of that, women’s presence in local governments hardly accounts for 30 percent. However, each month tens of thousands of women leaders actively address the difficulties in providing for the needs and ensuring the development of their communities in the following areas: education, healthcare, social policy, unemployment, protecting the rights of vulnerable groups, overcoming corruption, and so on.

Empowering women in politics and decision-making requires giving them access to political participation on an equal footing with men. To a large extent, this can be achieved by providing women with mandates.

The latest local elections in Ukraine, for the first time, had a 40 percent mandatory gender quota, as set forth in the Election Code. However, you can find out from our article whether or not the political parties adhered to this innovation, what implications this had, and what difficulties women candidates and newly elected councillors faced. The article summarizes two recent online discussions with women who take an active part in political and civic life.

1. What challenges do women face after winning local elections?


After winning the 2015 elections in Poltava Oblast and being elected to three regional councils at once, young councillor Yulia Kostenko was allowed to work for only one year, after which she was “asked” to give up her mandate in favour of her colleague.

The leadership of the party, which was made up exclusively of men, believes that all party members should gain experience by working in councils, and then remove themselves or give up their mandates, allowing their fellow party members to work. For some reason, however, giving up mandates only seems to apply to women.

It was party pressure and the contempt of the leadership that forced her to give up her mandate. Only after a long break did Kostenko find the nerve to run again in the 2020 local elections, this time for a different political party, and continued to work in the interests of her community.

A lack of support from fellow party members

For almost two years, Yulia Yeremenko fought for her right to become a councillor in Kherson City Council, resisting pressure from her fellow party members. After the death of one of the councillors, Yeremenko was to take his place as the next candidate on the party list, but the party team was against it: they insisted that she give up her mandate in favour of a man. In spite of that, Yeremenko wanted to work for the benefit of her community and was convinced that she deserved to be a councillor.

She fought for her right to be a councillor in the courts, supported by her colleagues, civic activists and journalists. After fighting numerous court battles and submitting many petitions, she managed to obtain a city councillor mandate in the summer of 2020 and ran again in the local elections in the autumn of that year. Yeremenko’s story shows how one can successfully overcome party-created obstacles and continue to fight for one’s right to be elected a councillor, and that women have to believe, against all the odds, that they have the right to participate in political processes and community governance.

Public opinion

In September 2020, at the request of UNDP in Ukraine, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a telephone survey of 2,000 respondents across all oblasts of Ukraine. The survey found out that for most respondents, the gender of a candidate is irrelevant (this is according to 73.7 percent of women and 75.3 percent of men). Some 27.4 percent of those surveyed said that nothing prevented women from running for local councils. Respondents named family duties (17.3 percent), a lack of funds to conduct an election campaign (12.3 percent), insufficient experience of involvement in local politics (10.5 percent), and self-doubt (10.2 percent) as the main reasons that prevent women from running in elections. A total of 9.9 percent of those surveyed believed politics was a man’s world. To the question of who could run a public utility company better, 73 percent of respondents replied that gender was irrelevant to one’s ability to run such a company.

Women’s refusal to take part in politics

Inna Sovsun, an MP, says that despite the party’s internal policies to support women and ensure gender equality, when her party was drawing up its lists in 2020 some women refused to stand as candidates. The major reasons for that included self-doubt (despite women actually having considerable professional experience and skills) and a lack of consent from potential candidates’ husbands (they often fear that they will not have enough time to look after their children and run the household, and see political activity as a threat to doing business and personal safety).

Olha Altunina, a councillor from Sloviansk Town Council, believes that men have similar apprehensions as women when wives do not want their husbands to go into politics. In this light, the attitude of a person’s family clearly influences that person’s decision to go into politics and their future effectiveness.

In order to prevent women from doubting their professionalism, parties should organize special training events. Natalya Koval, a councillor from Khmelnytskyi City Council, at a training event, shared her experience about why this is important. She also stressed the importance of the family duties factor: her experience shows that this year the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly misbalanced gender representation on party lists, because it is women who most often stay at home with children during quarantines.

Forced to give up a mandate

Women speakers said that parties had differing approaches to balancing gender representation on their party lists. Some parties included women who are the relatives and friends of their party leaders simply to fill the gender quota in the party list, while other parties selected women on the basis of their professionalism, skills, experience in civic activities, popularity among potential voters, and so on.

A common challenge for elected women candidates was coercion to give up their mandates. The most common reasons given for this were that they were formal or dummy candidates, or that they lacked professional skills.

Women MPs, candidates and experts unanimously call upon women not to give up their mandates, while urging their close relatives and colleagues to support elected women candidates. What is more, it is important to be more vocal about the success stories and activities of politically active women in order to increase the level of trust, encouragement and support from their colleagues and relatives.


Monitoring the situation

Olha Kotsiuruba, chief legal advisor from the OPORA Civil Network, says that data made public by the Central Electoral Commission show that, despite an overall increase in the number of women councillors, there tends to be a negative correlation between the number of women in a city/town council and the size of a populated area or amalgamated territorial community. This trend has been observed since 2015. This means that women are more often elected councillors in smaller communities compared to urban-type settlements and town communities.

Vita Dumanska, a coordinator of the CHESNO movement analysed the distribution of Kyiv City Council seats between the men and women that were elected in the 2020 elections. In the 2020 elections, 39 women were elected to Kyiv City Council, which is 10 percent more compared to the 2015 elections. This time, 16 women who were the first women on the list were elected thanks to the gender quota. Party ratings and the share of women’s representation in the general or constituency party lists affected whether or not women candidates were elected. As a result, this year’s elections revealed flaws in the updated Electoral Code. For example, in Kyiv, a city in which millions of people live, candidates who received 300 – and sometimes as little as 15 – votes, were elected councillors.

Dumanska believes that eliminating general party lists and assigning candidates to constituencies would ensure a more balanced representation of men and women in councils. This is because at present candidates from stronger parties with higher ratings win in constituencies, which gives them the chance to become Kyiv City councillors.

Responding to violations

A survey conducted by La Strada Ukraine, an NGO, revealed that from 2010 through 2018 over 60 percent of women politicians had their rights violated and were subjected to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

According to OSCE data, one in two women in Ukraine has experienced at least one form of sexual harassment, while two out of three women have experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence. We asked Khrystyna Kit, a lawyer and the head of the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association how women should react in such situations.

She says that in the case of sexism, a lawsuit should be filed at a court, in particular, to protect the honour, dignity and business reputation of the woman, as such a practice does exist. The most important thing is to keep evidence that will help resolve the case, and document such cases.

Kit is convinced that the struggle will bear fruit if women go to court each time they are subjected to pressure, intimidation, and sexism, rather than filing just one lawsuit. Change will definitely take place through cases going public and through establishing legal precedents related to the violation of women’s rights, among other things, in politics.

Kotsiuruba says that courts often judge the failure to meet the quota to be a technical error, rather than the violation of women’s right to be elected. The expert cited five rulings by courts in Odesa Oblast as an example. Only in one of these cases did a court of appeal rule that moving a person’s name from one place to another place on a party list cannot be regarded as a technical error in drawing up documents.

Using the example of the lists of the several first groups of five candidates to be elected to Kyiv City Council, Dumanska demonstrated that some parties equally distributed men and women in each group of five, while others put women on the last places on their party lists. The expert believes that such parties do not regard women as full participants in the political process.

Dumanska, Kotsiuruba and Kit unanimously agreed that preventing such decisions from being taken and not allowing parties to put pressure on women requires creating a party culture that has the required norms and values, as well as introducing policies that render pressure, persecution and violations of women's rights impossible. A gender-based analysis of the statutes of Ukrainian political parties and the creation of gender-focused programmes that will be available for implementation by parties could be effective tools for ensuring gender equality in political parties.


The results of the 2020 local elections showed that in some regions of Ukraine, the majority of newly elected councillors were women. Altunina is convinced that, apart from practical activities and professionalism, the ability to present oneself to voters in a responsible and proper manner was the most important factor.

The application of the gender quota is a signal for voters to pay attention to the party: how important the values of gender equality and inclusion are for it. After all, the scaling-up of the practice of increasing women’s participation in local politics and local governance is a qualitative indicator for civilizational development, which will ultimately result in quality community development and advocacy for the needs of socially vulnerable groups.


During the third online discussion about local elections and women in Ukrainian politics on the topic of “I Am a Councillor: a Study of the Needs of, and Prospects for, Newly Elected Councillors,” experts Olena Yena, Lesya Handzha and Nadiya Babynska discussed the specifics of being a woman councillor, and namely how, where, when and from whom to learn to attain success. Nadiya Babynska presented the results of a special study of the national and international experience of women's participation in politics, which was conducted in 2020 through interviews in different regions of Ukraine. The study reveals best practices for involving women in politics, and the main challenges, queries and needs of women councillors.

Ensuring gender equality in politics and strengthening the network of successful politically and civically active women is one of the priorities of UNDP in Ukraine. As part of the Enhancing Women’s Political Participation at the Subnational Level project, which is being implemented with support from the Norwegian government, the following will be achieved by July 2021:

●       training for politically and civically active women to bolster their effectiveness and increase their political participation;

●       development of a community of like-minded women to enable them to share experiences, advice, contacts and information;

●       an information campaign to change the conduct of women’s colleagues and close relatives who support women in their political and civic activities.

As part of the project, UNDP invites newly elected women councillors from Zakarpattia, Mykolaiv, Khmelnytsky and Kherson oblasts to take part in a comprehensive training programme called the Workshop of Political Participation – “I Am a Councillor,” the ultimate goal of which is to teach participants to effectively represent their community in the local council. The programme consists of three two-day training sessions, intersessional tasks and practical cases. Moreover, participation in the programme enables women politicians to communicate with women leaders and to gain knowledge and advice from the best experts in local self-governance, budgeting, land issues, gender policy, communications, the legal protection of women, self-presentation, public speaking, and much more. The training will be conducted offline in March and April 2021. To take part in the programme, you must submit an application by 22 January 2021, using the following link.

▪ in the local elections held in the autumn of 2020, women accounted for 43 percent of the total number of candidates;

▪ 82 percent of Ukrainian men and women support women’s intentions to take part in politics, while 60 percent of respondents believe that women have the required knowledge and skills;

▪ 74 percent of Ukrainian men and women said their choice in the local elections did not depend on a candidate’s gender;

▪ 50 percent of those surveyed agreed that at present Ukraine has no party representing the interests of women, and that women are not sufficiently represented in central government, parliament, and local governments.

Written by Nadia Chorna-Bokhniak

Edited by Tetyana Kononenko and Anna Mysyshyn, UNDP in Ukraine

Translation from Ukrainian: Kristina Zasypkina