Across Ukraine on 24 February, people awoke to the sounds of sirens and explosions as Russia began its military attack. Since that morning, 1 million Ukrainians – the vast majority women and children – have fled to neighbouring countries. Another 160,000 people have been internally displaced across Ukraine amid frigid winter temperatures. These numbers are expected to increase significantly as the offensive continues, reversing important gains made on gender equality and women’s rights.
“I urge the international community, as it rallies in support, to keep women and girls at the centre and to ensure that the humanitarian assistance planned and provided is gender-responsive,” said UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, in a statement.
Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with women among those most disadvantaged. Employment and economic activity among working-aged women in Ukraine are far lower than for men. Women constitute 72.2 per cent of social assistance recipients. And with a 22 per cent gender pay gap and 32 per cent pension gap, women are more vulnerable to the humanitarian crisis. Women also shoulder the greatest burden of unpaid domestic and care work in households and make up 92.2 per cent of single parents.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic had already exacerbated women’s vulnerability to income loss and domestic violence and exposed them to additional unpaid work and high psychological pressure.
And even before the recent escalation, conflict was raging in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and women and girls were severely impacted. Already, more than 1.5 million people – two-thirds women and children – were internally displaced and suffering from impeded access to health care, housing and employment. The current military offensive is only going to exacerbate this situation.
Evidence inarguably demonstrates that women and girls are disproportionately affected by conflict. The UN estimates that 54 per cent of people in need of assistance from the ongoing crisis are women.
“UN Women will use its expertise in Ukraine and neighbouring countries to identify and respond to women and girls’ specific needs, as they evolve. We will redirect our programming on the ground and share our gender expertise with the UN system and our humanitarian partners to help make humanitarian response plans and their implementation more gender-responsive,” says Alia El-Yassir, UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia in an article.
As the military attacks intensify, more Ukrainians are fleeing and families are being separated. Thousands of people – mostly women and children – have fled to the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing to the Republic of Moldova to seek refuge or transit through the country to Romania and then other European Union countries.
“Our minds can’t conceive what is happening; we just can’t understand,” says Margarita, a 22-year-old refugee from Odessa, southern Ukraine. She came to Moldova with her mother, two little brothers and their cat. Their father remained in Odessa to defend their home. They intend to go to Romania, and then to the Czech Republic.
In solidarity, many women volunteers have flocked to the border crossing to support the refugees from Ukraine. “I came to volunteer because I am myself a mother, and as refugees are mostly women and children, I could not stand by,” says Ina, a 31-year-old mother of three, on her first day as a volunteer.
“I just couldn’t stay in my warm office and work. It is only human for us to be here and help,” adds Liuba another volunteer who came to the border with her colleagues.
“The majority of those arriving are women with children, and they are scared and vulnerable and need psychological assistance,” says Veronica, a 31-year-old Moldovan psychologist working with the Moldova border police who has been deployed to the border to offer psychological counselling to women and children.
In Moldova, UN Women is planning targeted interventions and developing its humanitarian response for Ukrainian refugees.
UN Women has been present in Ukraine since 2015, including with offices in conflict-affected areas of eastern Ukraine, supporting social mobilization among women, advancing their resilience, livelihoods and boosting their capacities and confidence, including by helping them form self-help groups.
“Since starting our work in Ukraine in 2015, the resilience of women and girls, their expertise and commitment to build a just, democratic society for all has been growing, and informed our work. We will continue to call for women’s rights to be respected, their voices to be meaningfully included in decision-making, and resources to be fairly allocated for gender-responsive initiatives during and in the aftermath of this crisis,” says Erika Kvapilova, UN Women Representative in Ukraine.