MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS) Yulia Timoshenko--Ukraine's former deputy prime minister and closest ally of Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate who is contesting the results of the recent presidential election--may be wearing her blond hair in the braid of Ukrainian peasant women these days.
But that doesn't mean she is representative of the status of Ukrainian women.
In fact, if you ask women's rights leaders in the country, they are likely to say that Timoshenko--rich, powerful and bold--is a model of the status most women do not have.
Even though more than 60 percent of college graduates in Ukraine are women, few even hope for a high-level job, especially in the public sector, says Oksana Bilozir, a parliament member and one of the most active defenders of women's rights.
"It is true that she acts like a man," says Natalia Karbowska, president of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Women's Fund, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise awareness of gender issues through education, advocacy and research. "Men in power are not ready to let a woman take charge, that's why she has to be tough. Women are generally known for their greater flexibility than men. But not Yulia."
Timoshenko--the subject of many news profiles in the Western press by this point--has inspired millions of Ukrainians to protest a vote that international observers have called "not free."
"We are prepared to block railways, roads and airports. A general strike will paralyze the country," she told crowds of more than 100,000 protesters gathered at the Central Square in Kiev after the Nov. 21 presidential elections. "The time has come for us to act as an army."
Last week, the public outrage that she helped to stoke led to the Supreme Court decision to invalidate the highly contested vote, which gave the presidency to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and order a rerun.
All of this makes Timoshenko extraordinary in a country where not a single woman can be found among 16 government ministers and only two women serve at the deputy-minister level. A recent Council of Europe report says women account for only 5 percent of the legislators in Ukraine, compared to 7 percent in Russia, 10 percent in Lithuania, and above 20 percent in Central European countries.
Although the country has experienced a radical change by its own standards--200 feminist and women's rights organizations have cropped up in the past 15 years--the society is still criticized by women's rights leaders for adhering to gender-role stereotypes that lead to discrimination.
A former gas executive and government official in charge of reforming the energy sector in post-Soviet Ukraine, Timoshenko made a vast personal fortune in the 1990s and became widely known as the "Gas Princess" before falling out with the outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.
Since then their antagonism has intensified. In 2001, Timoshenko was briefly jailed on corruption charges that she dismisses as politically motivated. The following year, after she led a popular campaign against Kuchma for his alleged role in the murder of the journalist Georgi Gongadze, she narrowly survived a car crash that has attracted suspicions of an official assassination attempt.
This is hardly the resume of women in a country where a woman is supposed to care for the children and look after the household, but is not expected to be economically independent or successful. If a woman is not married by mid-20s, at the latest, she is pitied as "too old," says Tatiana Morgunova, a Moscow journalist who spends much of her time in Eastern Ukraine.
Women's health has suffered under harsh economic conditions and medical services, particularly for pregnant women, are often inadequate, according to an August 2003 report by Human Rights Watch. The organization found a lack of family planning and high rates of abortion.
"High rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, miscarriages, and sexually transmitted diseases also reflect unsatisfactory reproductive and sexual health care," the report said.
Karbowska, of the Ukrainian Women's Fund, says women themselves often display the culturally ingrained bias against their own gender. "We had a businesswoman participate in a seminar on gender issues and she said she would not hire a young, recently married woman," she told Women's eNews.
Many Ukrainian firms, says Karbowska, have female employees of childbearing age sign a "resignation letter." That way, if they become pregnant, the company can fire them and use the letter to defend against any lawsuits.
Looking for a Better Life Abroad
Because of the lack of equal opportunities in Ukraine, many gifted and educated women feel compelled to look for better life abroad, says parliamentarian Bilozir. She adds that about 70 percent of Ukrainian labor migrants are women.
"I had graduated from one of the top universities in the country, and still there were no prospects for a good job or a good life," says Natalia Cherkaska, an information-technology specialist who grew up in Lviv, a major city in Western Ukraine and now lives in San Francisco. "The pay there is meager. And on tope of that, most men drink, demanding that a woman takes care of them and the kids."
Women's limited work opportunities "may leave them vulnerable to being trafficked into the commercial sex industry or other forms of forced labor," according to the Human Rights Watch report.
The World Bank said in its 2000 report that the trafficking of women from Ukraine into forced labor "has reached an unprecedented level even when compared to other Former Soviet Union countries."
Ukrainian authorities have taken, at least on paper, a number of steps to reverse the emigration of women. In 2001, Kuchma issued a decree that asked the cabinet to draft a four-year national plan to improve the position of women and achieve gender equality in society. The decree was approved, but so far there is still no separate legislation on gender equality. In fact, three draft laws have been struck down in parliament just this year. One of the drafts sought to introduce a 30 percent quota for women in party candidate lists and establish a commission on equal protection. Another draft proposed to address sexual harassment at work.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice announced it would review the existing legislation and recommend measures to bring Ukrainian gender laws into compliance with international legal norms. The review was supposed to be completed by December, but the political crisis following presidential elections has delayed the process.
Elections brought forth another dimension in the gender debate in Ukraine, as both political camps recognized the importance of female votes. All through the pre-election period, Valentina Dovzhenko, the head of the State Committee on Family and Youth, actively campaigned on behalf of the current Prime Minister and government candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Following the first round of the elections, Dovzhenko declared that Yanukovich had won about 7 percent more female votes than Yushchenko, the opposition candidate.
However, who really won the majority of female votes remains unclear, as the results of both election rounds--second round being the run-off between Yanukovich and Yushchenko--have now been recognized as heavily falsified.
"The country has split, and so have Ukrainian women," says Karbowska of the Ukrainian Women's Fund. "Dovzhenko had declared that all women support Yanukovich, but this is not true. Many women recognize that they are voting for their future and the future of their kids and they understand that the future lies not with the current regime."
In the end, it seems that one woman's vote did make a difference and it belonged to Yulia Timoshenko. Not only has she become a symbol for the opposition, but she also brought the world's attention to the plight of all women in Ukraine.
As The Guardian wrote, "Few would question [Timoshenko's] personal charisma, or the iron will that has enabled her to become . . . one of the central figures in a Ukrainian political and business world that is otherwise dominated by men. Ukraine is not a straightforwardly patriarchal society, but the power of women has traditionally been exercised in the personal, domestic sphere."
And, as Karbovskaya says, "even if Yulia has to use men's ways to achieve her goals, the more of such powerful women we have in Ukraine, the better it is for all of us."
Mariya Rasner is a Ukrainian-born journalist working in Moscow while permanently residing in Fairfax, Va. She has worked for Internews Network and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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Human Rights Watch--
"Women's Work: Discrimination against Women in the Ukrainian Labor Force":
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