Women hold hands at a September 2015 workshop on peace building in Kirovograd, Ukraine.
Women hold hands at a September 2015 workshop on peace building in Kirovograd, Ukraine.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– More than a year after pro-Russian separatists seized control of her city in eastern Ukraine, Natalya, whose real name has been withheld, recounted its aftermath at a September gathering of mostly women in Svyatogorsk, a town in Donetsk Oblast.

On a teacher’s salary, she could barely support her now disabled son and husband, she said through tears, according to a narrative report of the meeting. "Now I know what is the biggest treasure in life . . .  my family and peace" she said. "And I will do everything to save both."

The roughly 100 other Ukrainian women who joined Natalya that day were mostly strangers and came from across western and eastern Ukraine, regions severed by the ongoing war in the country’s Donbass region. Since July they have been meeting twice a month for moderated brainstorming sessions about ways to help end the conflict that began in April 2014 between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government.

They are some of the country’s most influential women: activists, civil society leaders, volunteers, journalists, public servants and women directly impacted and displaced by the fighting.

None of the participants live in areas controlled by pro-Russian separatists so they don’t cross conflict zones for their meetings, but they do represent a good diversity of views about the conflict.

A key organizer of this process is the Kiev-based Union of Women of Ukraine, one of the country’s oldest women’s rights groups, which dates to 1921 as a successor to the Soviet Women’s Councils. In early 2015, the group teamed up with the Canadian nonprofit Stabilization Support Services, based in Toronto, to start this six-month project funded by the United Kingdom.

Leokadia Gerasimenko, who heads the Union of Women of Ukraine, acts as lead moderator for the women’s peace talks. "We try to gather women from different areas of Ukraine, from west, from east, those who have different positions and opinions and those who are united in their opinions and just give them an opportunity to start some dialogue," Gerasimenko said in Skype call. "The biggest aim of our program is the reconciliation of the whole family."

In their gatherings on the sidelines of the official negotiations, the women have amassed two sets of ideas. One is for building peace and the other is for addressing the humanitarian problems that have been created by the conflict.

A Heavy Price

Women have actively fought on the frontlines. Beyond that direct risk, women have also paid a heavy humanitarian price. The majority of Ukraine‘s 1.4 million internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are women. During the conflict, human trafficking and domestic violence linked to post-traumatic stress disorder have spiked, while the extent of sexual violence is unknown due to a lack of reporting and access to justice.

Women’s groups and volunteers are at the forefront of addressing these humanitarian issues, said Anastasia Divinskaya, a gender advisor for UN Women in Ukraine, a group based in Kiev.

"Women activists [in Ukraine] organize service provision, including to survivors of sexual violence, consultations and counseling to women IDPs, mediation and dialogues," said Divinskaya in an email interview. "They are not sufficiently represented at the decision-making forums on recovery and peacebuilding though."

The ideas that come up in the workshops, along with the personal stories the women share, are being collected in narrative reports that are currently still being held internally.

Brian Kerr, the Ukraine program coordinator of Stabilization Support Services, hopes the research collected from the workshops can assist a long-term reconciliation program in eastern Ukraine. "So far no one is collecting that information so that’s why this narrative report [from the workshops] is so important," said Kerr in a Skype call from Kiev.

Although the workshops are not formally tying civil society with government-led peace negotiations, organizers hope the way is getting paved for some sort of confluence.

The formal peace process has included some women, such as Heidi Tagliavini, the Swiss diplomat who the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But women in this shadow process are bothered by a void of formal representation of women’s special concerns.

The Ukrainian government is currently reviewing a draft plan to implement and strengthen programs on women, peace and security through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognizes women as active participants in conflict resolution and guarantees their protection in peace agreements. If properly funded and carried through, the plan will support mediation processes between women in both government-controlled areas and separatist-held territories of the Ukraine.

Alexandra Hrycak, a sociologist at Reed College in Portland, Ore., studies gender and democratization in Ukraine. In a phone interview Hrycak said the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, temporarily dissolved a ministry dedicated to women’s rights and children’s welfare before his ouster. And that, she said, left women in a weakened political position when demonstrations broke out against Yanukovych in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kiev, triggering Russia’s annexation of Crimea and setting the stage for today’s separatist conflict in some parts of the mineral-rich eastern region.

"Yanukovych created a huge vacuum," Hrycak said. "But then after Maidan, when the war broke out, all of the most pressing concerns for women and men have just been survival."

Women’s Involvement Key

An analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War, published earlier this year and conducted by the Graduate Institute of Geneva, finds that the chances of reaching an agreement are higher when women’s groups are involved.

When women’s groups and female leaders are involved in peace processes, they tend to identify issues often overlooked by governments, said Lori Perkovich, a project staff member at Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a New York-based nonprofit that helps local women’s groups implement the U.N.’s peace and security agenda.

"Typically when you don’t have women involved in a peace process or civil society in general, what you’re going to get is a process that focuses solely on ending fighting and just sorts out power sharing," she said, noting that women emphasize social programs and employment, among other issues.

While the women at these workshops contemplate peace, there isn’t always a solid consensus about what that means though. On occasion the participants have conflated the concept of "winning" the conflict with "peace," the workshops’ facilitators told Women’s eNews, adding that some women have pressed the need for more arms, perhaps influenced in part by the militarization pervading Ukrainian society since the war began.

Some generational differences have also emerged. For example, older women raised in the Soviet Union believe the government should provide support for those affected by the conflict, said Olga Ivanova, the project’s monitoring and evaluation officer, over Skype. But younger women are more likely to suggest volunteer projects, saying they cannot wait for legislative change and international support.

A recurring concern, however, is both the immediate needs of children and how this generation will cope as they grow up, said Union of Women of Ukraine‘s Gerasimenko.

Women meeting in these workshops and through other groups–such as Project Kesher, a network of female activists of Jewish heritage–do agree that the humanitarian crisis is their top concern.

For Gerasimenko, the hope is that the project’s basic mission of building empathy between groups at the local level will soon impact the national level. "They [the participants] try to imagine themselves in the situation of another and it gives them more understanding and more sympathy of each other," she said. "And better understanding a person is key to reconciliation."

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