BLOG POST | 15 Mar 2023

A feminist response to the war in Ukraine

Two Ukrainian women after shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine in March 2023. Two Ukrainian women after shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine in March 2023. Photo © Picture alliance / AA | Stringer.

Germany just announced its guidelines for a feminist foreign policy. In the context of the war in Ukraine, this means actively promoting women's participation.

By Christine Seifert


War impacts men and women in different ways. Nevertheless, it is rightly considered outdated to view women solely as victims of violence. This also applies to Ukraine. Since 24 February 2022, Ukrainian women and women's organisations have taken a leading role in organising and distributing humanitarian aid, documenting war crimes and strengthening social cohesion. In recent months, many Ukrainian women have also been granted significant responsibilities with regard to representing their country abroad as few men between the ages of 18 and 64 are allowed to leave the country.

This article was originally published on 7 March 2023 by the German newspaper Der Freitag as an opinion piece (in German):

Traditional gender roles are usually suspended during war as women are able to access new opportunities for social and economic participation. Yet, these traditional roles are then often reinforced in other ways. For example, it is perceived as a male duty to defend the homeland, while women are expected to carry out care labour for their family and wider society. And while their partners are fighting on the frontline or have stayed behind in Ukraine, many Ukrainian mothers at home and abroad have practically found themselves in a situation of single parenthood, juggling their children’s heightened demands for emotional care as well as the constant uncertainty with regard to their future.

Of course, women also fight in the Ukrainian army: they made up 22 per cent of the armed forces in 2022 (by comparison, in Germany it was 12 per cent). Women in the Ukrainian military have also become increasingly visible through initiatives such as the "Invisible Battalion" project. Nevertheless, in a context where military expertise is in high demand, the visibility of female experts in the media is already decreasing. Furthermore, only 21 per cent of the seats in the Ukrainian parliament are occupied by women, and there is a risk that their participation in formal decision-making processes could continue to decline in the future.

Ensuring the participation of women and marginalised groups

Similar developments have been observed in other contexts, where hard-won progress in the field of gender justice produced by the circumstances of war was reversed after the end of conflict. For instance, married women were pushed out of the labour market in (West) Germany after World War II as a result of the “surplus of women” and the aim to ensure employment for the men returning from the front, as well as – ostensibly – also in the interest of promoting a “thriving family atmosphere”.

So what can be done to promote progress on gender equality sustainably and in the long term? And why is this important? Last week, the German government presented its guidelines on feminist foreign and development policy, which include the objective of ensuring the participation of women and marginalised groups in decision-making processes. Strengthening women's participation in peace processes as well as the key role women play in building peace were already recognised by UN Resolution 1325, which the UN Security Council adopted over 20 years ago.

A feminist response would be to show solidarity with Ukrainian women and marginalised groups who have been fighting for more than a year for the existence of their homeland as a free, democratic and self-determined "normal European country".

Ukraine's international supporters should take these provisions seriously. The meaningful participation of women and marginalised groups should be promoted especially when it comes to planning reconstruction measures. The contribution of Ukrainian women to the resilience and cohesion of their society must be reflected in formal decision-making processes. To this end, it is important for German government and its partners to create effective mechanisms for engaging Ukrainian civil society and pay close attention to the impact their efforts have on women and other minorities. After all, we know that inclusive, equal and peaceful societies can only be built successfully if the participation of all groups is guaranteed and their contribution is valued. A "patriarchal backlash" after the end of the war should already be proactively prevented.

A feminist response to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine should also consider the prevailing power dynamics. For feminism is not only about anti-militarism, but also about solidarity with the oppressed and attacked. This includes the victims of massive human rights violations and possible war crimes committed by Russian troops, for which the responsible parties must be held accountable.

A feminist response does not hold on to unquestioned anti-militarism

Of course, in the medium and long term we all strive for peaceful societies, in which no one has to fear the threat of violence. However, in the short term, this goal will also not be achieved in Ukraine if the country is denied access to the necessary means of self-defence against a neo-imperial attack. In the words of Ukrainian Nobel laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk: "Peace cannot be reached by country under attack laying down its arms. That would not be peace, but occupation." And considering the findings that emerged after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Bucha in April 2022, it should be clear that occupation will not bring peace to Ukrainians.

It should also be clear that Ukrainians have chosen Europe and are now fighting for this choice. Back in 2014, many of the Maidan activists I spoke to told me that they “just want to live in a normal country”. In this case, "normal" referred a country where political representatives are democratically elected, where the rule of law is respected and where the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected. Last year, the Ukrainian government has already taken important steps in this direction with regard to the rights of women and sexual minorities, such as the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and passing a new law to protect LGBTQI+ persons from hate speech. In view of recent developments in Russia regarding the rights of sexual minorities, many Ukrainian LGBTQI+ persons in particular feel that they are fighting for their survival.

This is another reason why a feminist response to the Russian war of aggression does not at all consist of an unreflected and obstinate adherence to anti-militarist doctrines that simply are not fit to purpose in a situation of self-defence. A feminist response would be to show solidarity with Ukrainian women and marginalised groups who have been fighting for the existence of their homeland as a free, democratic and self-determined "normal European country" for over a year.

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