EU-Ukraine Relations and Gender Equality

By: Liliia Antoniuk, Doctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki





On 25-26 May 2023, the European Politics, Equality, and Democracy” conference organized by the EUGenDem project will take place in Helsinki, Finland. One of its panel discussions addresses the issue of gender equality in Ukraine in the context of European integration. Thus, this blog aims to provide a broader perspective on the issue and to explain the contextual background.

Cooperation between the EU and Ukraine has a long-lasting history. On 28 February 2022, four days after the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukraine applied for EU candidate country status. On 23 June 2022, in an unprecedentedly short time, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the candidate status of Ukraine, in which it welcomed Ukraine’s membership application and, on the same day, the European Council granted the candidate status to Ukraine. That event marked the beginning of a new chapter in EU-Ukraine relations.

Despite the colonial past of many member states, at present, the EU is often referred to as a promoter of human rights and a gender equality champion. Its gender equality policy tools include, for instance, legislation, funding relevant programmes, and gender mainstreaming. Some EU member states are among the leaders in closing the gender gap according to the data of the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. For instance, Finland is 2nd out of 146 countries, Sweden is 5th out of 146 countries, and Ireland is 9th out of 146 countries. 

Ukraine and gender equality: where does the country stand?

Ukraine’s 2022 ranking has fallen compared to previous years: it is 81st out of 146 countries (in 2021, it was ranked 74th out of 156, and, in 2020, it was 59th out of 153). Arguably, the reason behind this phenomenon is not that the country is doing poorly in terms of women’s rights and gender equality protection or that new restrictions were introduced. In fact, the country is progressing, establishing new mechanisms of gender equality protection and promotion (e.g., mandatory electoral quota, joining the Biarritz Partnership for Gender Equality, etc.). However, other countries are doing better and in comparison to the other states Ukraine is not advancing sufficiently fast.

The country is ranked particularly low in terms of women’s political empowerment (83rd out of 153 in 2020; 103rd out of 156 in 2021; and 100th out of 146 in 2022) and economic participation and opportunities (39th out of 153 in 2020; 44th out of 156 in 2021; 62nd out of 146 in 2022). As of May 2023, only 20% of the Members of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the Parliament) are women, and it is still the highest representation of women in the main legislative body since Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Concurrently, there are only 5 women in the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine (out of 22 Members) which equals to 23%. They hold the portfolios of the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, the Ministry of Veterans, the Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporary Occupied Territories, the Ministry of Economics, and the Vice-Prime Minister on the European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. The majority of areas related to finances, energy, heavy industry, security, internal affairs, foreign affairs, and innovations are headed by men. Moreover, according to the data of the State Statistics Service, as of the 4th quarter of 2021,  there were only 28% of women among the highest category of state servants, while, among the lowest category of state servants, women constituted 77% (newer data is not available).

In terms of economics, as of the 4th quarter of 2021, the gender pay gap in Ukraine was 18,4%. The largest gender pay gap for the reporting period occurred in the following areas: postal and courier activities (30,3%), financial and insurance activities (31,5%), and arts, sport, entertainment and recreation (32,3%). At the same time, there is a  feminization of lower-paid jobs, typical in post-state socialism. For instance, Ukrainian women earned more than men in two areas: the provision of other service activities like operation of tattoo and piercing salons, provision of escort services, dating services, marriage bureaus, etc. (0,9%) and administrative and support service activities (1,3%). The figures prove the gender segregation of the labour market in Ukraine and the division of types of economic activities into more prestigious and highly paid – “male” areas (e.g., finance and insurance) and less prestigious and less paid – “female” areas (e.g., service provision).

These statistics demonstrate imbalances regarding gendered power relations dynamics in society and inequalities in resource allocation and distribution in Ukraine. In terms of the positioning of the EU member states, Ukraine would be located towards the bottom of the list according to the data of the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, followed only by Malta, Hungary, Romania, Cyprus, and Greece. Accordingly, the question is whether the EU is paying enough attention to the issues of women’s rights and gender equality in terms of EU-Ukraine relations as required by its reputation.

Women’s rights and gender equality in the EU-Ukraine relations and standing documents

The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States and Ukraine (the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement), which was the first major agreement between the EU and Ukraine concluded in 1994 to settle their cooperation, included no references to gender equality or women’s rights. It mentioned human rights once in the preamble, once in the section on general principles, and once in the section on political dialogue. 

The Association Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and Ukraine, of the other part (the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement), which is the second crucial document in this regard signed in 2014, came into force on 1 September 2017. It addresses the issue of gender equality, but it does it in quite limited terms under a few norms in the chapter on cooperation in the field of employment, social policy, and equal opportunities (in these cases it mentions gender equality directly). Besides, according to the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, Ukraine undertook the obligation to amend national legislation in accordance with the key EU gender equality directives, the majority of which relate to employment and social policy.

A reference to women can be also found in the chapter on trade and sustainable development: ‘Parties reaffirm their commitments to promote the development of trade in a way that is conducive to full and productive employment and decent work for all, including men, women and young people’. The general provisions on human rights and non-discrimination (without a direct reference to women’s rights or gender equality) are also incorporated into the preamble of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, general principles, the political and justice, as well as freedom and security parts of the document. 

Given the limited scope in which the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement addresses the issue of gender equality (mainly referring to the area of employment, occupation, and social security), it is questionable whether the document would have a tangible impact on the constructions of gender power relations, the socio-legal order and its potential re-arrangement, and the discourses around a more inclusive concept of gender in Ukraine.

The seven recommendations related to reforms given by the EU to Ukraine while granting the candidate status also do not deal with the issue of gender equality and/or women’s rights. They include: the selection of judges of the Constitutional Court, judicial reform, the fight against corruption, anti-money laundering and law enforcement reform, proper implementation of anti-oligarchic legislation, adoption of a new law on media, and ensuring the rights of national minorities.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the role of the EU in ensuring women’s rights and gender equality protection and promotion in Ukraine as an EU candidate country

The problem of gender equality is of particular concern for societies in conflict or post-conflict environments. The experience of the latest wars taking place in Europe (e.g., Balkan wars) proves that it is essential to establish the mechanisms that would help to:

  • make sure that women’s role and contribution in the war is not overlooked after it ends up
  • protect the women’s rights and gender equality progress achieved in the process of the country’s recovery and reconstruction and prevent the backlash to more traditional gender roles where women are limited to performing the occupations of mothers and caregivers

As Ukraine ranks drastically low with regard to women’s political empowerment and economic participation and opportunities, it is essential to ensure women are included in the decision-making processes at all levels and in all stages. For instance, the delegation of Ukraine at the negotiations with Russia that took place on 28 February 2022 consisted of six people, all of them men. Furthermore, the delegation of Ukraine to participate in negotiations with the Russian Federation on the preparation and conclusion of the draft agreement on security guarantees of Ukraine officially appointed by the President of Ukraine on 4 March 2022 was 100% male as well. Thus, there is a risk that women will be seen through the traditional prism of patriarchal society only as victims of the war and not agents of change, while the on-the-ground practice differs:

  • As of 2023, around 60,000 women are employed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine in some capacity, with approximately 42,000 serving in uniform and around 5,000 with units on the front lines.
  • Thousands of women became volunteers, journalists, and paramedics, making sure that the army has support in the rear and the people in need has access to all the necessary services and information.
  • As of April 2023, there were more than 8 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe. 5 million people registered for the temporary protection status or similar national protection schemes in Europe and 5,3 million people were internally displaced in Ukraine. Most of those displaced within and leaving Ukraine are women and children (around 90%), making women in some cases the sole or main breadwinners.

Respectively, if the EU wants to keep the status of a promoter of human rights and a gender equality champion, it is important for it to touch upon the issue of the socio-legal order and gendered power relations in the enlargement process in the broader perspective. Considering the new developments in its relations with Ukraine, the EU should support and guide Ukraine in its endeavors in terms of promoting and protecting gender equality both at normative/legal and practical levels.

The normative/legal level foresees, among others:

  • enforcing a visible and efficient gender-responsive agenda in the Ukrainian accession process (e.g., referring directly to women’s rights and gender equality in the documents related to the negotiations, not only in separate chapters on equal opportunities but mainstreamed through all the chapters);
  • incorporating these questions while working on the EU Annual Reports on Ukraine.

The practical level includes: 

  • providing financial and technical assistance to the Ukrainian government in complying with its international obligations in terms of women’s rights and gender equality protection and promotion;
  • providing direct financial and technical assistance to Ukrainian civil society organizations working in the field as they are at the frontlines of providing assistance to people in need after the Russian full-scale invasion. In the situation of the protracted war, they keep carrying the burden of providing social services to the most vulnerable categories of the population, including women, children, and the elderly (e.g., opening new financial instruments for them, including respective provisions in the EU budget, etc.)
  • active engagement with Ukrainian civil society organizations in the overall EU decision-making process for Ukraine’s reconstruction and in the development of the key documents;
  • initiating more meetings with Ukrainian civil society organizations and representatives of Ukrainian authorities to keep the question of women’s rights and gender equality in Ukraine visible at the European level as failure to protect human rights in one European country leads to failure in all the European system.