8 Insights for March 8th: Delving into Ukraine’s Feminism

March 8, 2024
Let’s look at the key facts about the emergence and achievements of feminism in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian women's fight to  secure and expand their rights unfolded alongside similar movements worldwide

Back when modern-day Ukraine was divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, Ukrainian women experienced slightly different living conditions.

This prevented the consolidation of a unified Ukrainian women's movement, which was par for the course at the time women's movements were emerging around the world at the end of the 19th century.

However, Ukrainian women fought within their respective polities for access to higher education, joined societies to reach male-controlled institutions (like different committees), wrote and published feminist literature, and worked on various charitable activities that brought them together.

This is what Ukrainian feminism looked like until Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union.

  • The first Ukrainian women's almanac, The First Wreath (Pershyi Vinok) was published in the spring of 1887

The book was released by the Taras Shevchenko Society, and its contents were fully written, edited, and compiled by 17 Ukrainian women. They included Natalia Kobrynska, Olena Pchilka, Hanna Barvinok, Lesya Ukrainka, and many others.

All of these women published under their own names, rather than resorting to male pseudonyms as many women felt forced to do at the time.

  • In the 20th century, the Soviet Union isolated women in Ukraine and the other republics from the global women's rights movement

When the Soviets took power in Ukraine and across the former Russian Empire, they swiftly mandated gender equality. They granted women numerous important rights, including suffrage.

However, women's newfound rights on paper very often didn't align with reality.

Under Stalin's rule, women's supposed rights under the law, especially those concerning family life, were largely disregarded by Soviet authorities.

For example, non-medical abortions were outlawed in 1936. The Soviet Union also turned divorce into a public process, which made it humiliating and exceedingly difficult for women to obtain. There are still women alive today who had to endure this ordeal.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian women who lived in immigration, particularly in Canada and the USA, continued to be part of the global feminist movement and had their own successes.

  • Ukrainian Ministry of Health Order No. 256 was canceled thanks to the joint effort of Ukrainian feminist activists

Until 2017, the Ukrainian government maintained a "List of heavy jobs and positions with harmful and dangerous working conditions, in which the employment of women is prohibited," known as Ministry of Health Order No. 256.

The order encompassed 450 different professions across various fields, including work in electrical and electronic engineering, metalworking, chemical production, and more. The struggle to have it rescinded was arduous, but thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian women's equality activists, it was ultimately successful.

  • Women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine were permitted by 2018 legislation to pursue combat specialties

Ukrainian women have been serving in the country's military since 2014, with some actively participating in combat operations for a decade now. But it was only in 2018 that women were permitted to serve freely in positions of their choosing.

According to the Armed Forces of Ukraine's personnel center, there were 49,926 women serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2014.

With the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, this figure rose to 62,062.

Some women in the Ukrainian military say that the path for them in armed service is often difficult, especially in terms of serving in combat operations. Male commanders often harbor biases about women's abilities to be effective in battle. 

Nevertheless, Ukrainian women ultimately carry out their combat duties at the same level as men and continue to assert their rights in the armed forces. 

One noteworthy example is the volunteer organization Arm Women Now, which tailors military tactical clothing to fit women's bodies.

  • Independent Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, a fundamental document that takes on stereotypes that contribute to gender-based violence

One of the central demands of the modern feminist movement in Ukraine was for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which calls for the criminalization and prosecution of violence against women. This finally happened in 2022. 

The Ukrainian feminist community contributed substantially to the long fight to get the agreement ratified. However, the fight to ensure its implementation still continues. 

In 2020, Ukraine recorded 211,362 reports of domestic violence, according to the National Social Service. The vast majority of these reports were made by women.

  • The fight of Ukrainian feminists continues today across the country

Feminist groups in Ukraine today have put their efforts into responding to the consequences of Russian aggression. The Women's March organization works to aid internally displaced people, FemWorkShop helps female pensioners, and Woman4Woman and  La Strada help women escape and recover from domestic violence. The organization JurFEM provides free legal aid to women who have survived sexual violence during the war.

In addition, they provide analysis and advocacy to highlight the challenges women face as a consequence of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

The feminist movement in Ukraine also works to prevent people hostile to women's equality from holding leadership and influence in the Ukrainian government and society.

One recent example of this work is the dismissal of Borys Zimenkovskyi, the Rector of Danylo Halytskiy Lviv National Medical University, who ridiculed female students who planned to become doctors.

  • In Ukraine, both men and women advocate for women's rights

In 2018, the international movement HeForShe was launched in Ukraine. It is based on the idea that gender equality is everyone's business. 

Previously, the fight for women's rights was seen as a women's struggle for women. The HeForShe campaign believes that real change is impossible if only women are actively working towards it.

The campaign engages boys and men as change agents, actively fighting against the negative consequences of gender inequality faced by girls and women.

Lisa Dzhulai, Nika Krychovska
Journalists at UkraineWorld