Speech: Women’s involvement is both a right and an opportunity for better outcomes

Remarks by United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, at the UN Security Council briefing on the maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine.

[As delivered.]

At the outset, I want to express my solidarity with all Ukrainians: women and girls, men and boys, those who have left for safety and those who have stayed. My heart goes out to all families who have lost a loved one. This war must stop. And it must stop now.

Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, briefs the Security Council meeting on maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine. Photo: UN Photo/Manuel Elías.
Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, briefs the Security Council meeting on maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine. Photo: UN Photo/Manuel Elías.

I returned last night to New York from Moldova, where the consequences of the senseless war in Ukraine were stark. Moldova has rightfully been described as a small country with a big heart. Despite still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, and with determination to achieve their national development priorities, they opened their borders and homes for those fleeing shelling and guns in Ukraine, the majority of whom are women, children, and elderly. An estimated 95,000 Ukrainians are hosted in-country to date. Thousands and thousands more have transited since the war started.

At the different temporary shelters that I visited in Moldova, exhausted, anxious, fearful, tearful mothers shared their worries about the future of their country, about the futures of their daughters and sons, and their families. A young girl from Odessa, Tatyana, told me her city is beautiful. She has a dream to become a doctor, and had her studies abruptly interrupted by the necessity to flee. In an act of determination and resilience, she and her colleagues are continuing their schooling online with the help of their teachers as well. Tatyana is determined to not let this war disrupt her dream.

Vitally, a young boy of maybe seven, told me about his sleepless nights worried about his father, who was left behind to patrol the streets in their hometown.

I witnessed buses full of women and children arrive at the Palanca border, weary and fearful. There, they were met with dignity and with compassion by volunteers from civil society organizations, many of which we support as UN Women.

I heard from women’s civil society organizations how they adapted their work overnight. going from grappling with two emergencies—COVID-19 and the energy crisis—to a third. They were able to work with the Government to ensure that basic needs were met, and services provided. They do this without specific humanitarian response training. UN Women, at their request, is supporting them in this adjustment.

UN Women is acting on our coordination mandate, working with the refugee response team and civil society partners to ensure that the gendered nature of this crisis is addressed with a gender-sensitive response. This includes providing services with a focus on protection and to address the increased trauma and psycho-social support needs that I saw so starkly: young women who left their homes at night, families who are separated, and the constant fear of the future. This trauma risks destroying a generation. We must continue our support. But most importantly, we must continue all efforts to advance peace.

I condemn, in the strongest possible way, the recent attack on Kramatorsk train station, which also killed civilians and UN civil society partners. The people killed in the train station are like the people I met at the border: women, children, and the elderly looking for safety. Humanitarians are not a target. Civilians are not a target.

We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence. These allegations must be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability. The combination of mass displacement with the large presence of conscripts and mercenaries, and the brutality displayed against Ukrainian civilians, has raised all red flags. This esteemed Body will hear more on this from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict on Wednesday.

A war of this magnitude impacts the world far beyond the borders of Ukraine. I also heard from the Government in Moldova, and the border police, a need for increased support to monitor border crossings. The risk of human trafficking is increasing as the situation becomes more desperate. Young women and unaccompanied teenagers are at particular risk. I call on all countries to increase their efforts in combating trafficking and commend all the host countries for their collaboration on that and on prevention. I equally call on all countries to support Moldova and others with increased resources for the police forces so that they can ensure support to victims of gender-based violence and trafficking.

Gender-sensitive and survivor-centred response must be at the heart of all humanitarian action.

Through all these horrors, women continue to serve and lead their communities and support the internally displaced in Ukraine. Women make up 80 per cent of all health and social care workers in Ukraine, and many of them chose not to evacuate. We have seen the women Members of Parliament continue to fulfil their duties in the Verkhovna Rada while bombs fell around Kyiv. And we have also seen the Deputy Prime Minister engaged in the humanitarian response. I have seen Ukrainian women refugees in Moldova also working in the shelters and taking on roles to support each other.

Women’s organizations within Ukraine have not stopped working but are adjusting their work to meet the immediate needs of the populations they serve. They do this at great risk to their own lives. They were there before the war, they remain there during, and they will be there to pick up the pieces after. I salute their courage and their steadfastness. They need our continued support.

The Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund is already supporting several women’s organizations on the frontline in Ukraine and in Moldova to aid displaced women and girls with shelter, medication, food, and psychosocial support, including to women and girls living with disabilities or HIV/AIDS. The Fund is also providing institutional support to these organizations to sustain them. With your help, we can do much more.

Without fail, every Ukrainian man, woman, and child I met had one dream: to be able to return home. However, as I heard yesterday, many do not have homes to go back to.

I call on this Council to continue to use all avenues for peace. From UN Women’s own rapid gender analysis, we know that women are asking to be part of the solution. I heard from women in the shelters that they, too, are taking on leadership roles and supporting the refugee responses in the host countries. Many of them are in touch with other women, their friends and families who are supporting the internally displaced populations within Ukraine.

We know from experience that women’s participation makes response and recovery more effective and sustainable, and women’s organizations are uniquely qualified to help not just women, but other marginalized and vulnerable groups. It is vital that they are consulted and engaged in all decisions related to the crisis response and related to peace. They need not to be seen as victims only, but as the agents and leaders of change that they are.

This Security Council has adopted ten resolutions calling for women to be meaningfully involved in any decision or negotiation about peace and security, and we know that women’s involvement is both a right and an opportunity for better outcomes. This is especially important in a war that has so starkly illustrated gender-based differences. Let us not lose sight of this. I have seen first-hand the impact women’s leadership can have. Yet, women are largely absent from any current negotiation efforts.

We ask this Security Council, all Member States, and our development and humanitarian partners, to ensure the meaningful participation of women and girls, including from marginalized groups, in all decision-making processes, in peace, diplomatic, and humanitarian processes. Without this, we will not have peace, development, or human security.

To conclude, we strongly echo the Secretary-General’s repeated calls for peace, an immediate cessation of hostilities, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

Tatyana, the young girl from the shelter in Moldova, must be supported and enabled to pursue her medical degree, and to be a part of the future of her country. The war must stop. And it must stop now.

I thank you.