The escalation of the militarised crisis around the Ukraine, in the face of the massive deployment of Russian army troops along the Ukrainian border and the geostrategic throbbing between Russia, the United States and NATO over the Ukraine and continental security architecture, poses enormous risks to the security of those living in the conflict zone as well as dilemmas over the approach to the crisis. What can we bring to the public and political debate over the crisis in the Ukraine from an approach that seeks to build a feminist security? A few non-exhaustive thoughts.
In the first place, the crisis in the Ukraine forces us to stress once again (and we shall not tire of doing so) the urgent need to place the prevention of violent conflicts from a feminist perspective at the centre of our politics. Clearly moments of serious escalation, like the present time, require reactive intervention designed to promote a de-escalation, intensifying diplomatic efforts. But beneath the threat of military invasion, reaching agreement over some of the most fundamental themes, often the most divisive, appears to be highly complex. Furthermore, in times of crisis, the pace and usual trading patterns exacerbate the dynamics of exclusion and of gender bias which usually characterize peace processes and political negotiations. On this basis, there are no possible excuses for delaying adopting preventative diplomacy as a central policy for governments (including the Spanish government) and intergovernmental organisations, as much on a specific as a transversal basis in other policies (neighbourhood policy, commercial policy, defence, among many others). We need to place preventive feminist diplomacy at the centre and implement it, with political determination, resources, skills, involvement and accountability. Failure to do so would mean that the militarised crisis in the Ukraine could end up becoming, in addition to a new humanitarian crisis, an antechamber to a series of crises in other geographical regions and so involving serious human, material, and environmental damage to the populations concerned.
In the second place, an approach of feminist security would be useful faced with the crisis in the Ukraine. The concept of security has traditionally been linked to the defence of state sovereignty and the territorial integrity of States. The centrality of this argument at present in justifying the military component as a response to the crisis in the Ukraine by NATO and many governments and analysts can be seen as a prime example of this perspective. Together with the concept of traditional security, with the thrust of the UN, different players also incorporated the human security framework, based on the security of the population and its local contexts. The feminist approaches to security are intertwined with the human security framework, but they extend the focus and stress the need to take gender dynamics into account, including in conflict causes and conflict impact, in the values and norms of the area of security, and in the practice of international politics, among other aspects, as compiled in the summary on feminist security published in 2020 by the International Catalan Institute for Peace (ICIP). This summary also points out that security “is always and inevitably relational and is based on interdependence, as opposed to a fanciful notion of being isolated, completely autonomous, self-sufficient, independent and armed,” gathering together Carol Cohn’s contributions. Furthermore, it was pointed out that we cannot have gender security without fair socio-economic conditions for women. In turn, attention was drawn to how different political and military players exploit the agenda of women, peace and security, an agenda developed in the context of Resolution 1325 of the Security Council in the year 2000 (which revindicates the inclusion of the gender perspective and the participation of women in peace-building) in contrast with the transformational and practical vision which from its origin has been promoted by organisations of women in so many countries.
From the feminist security perspective, the approach to the crisis in the Ukraine must take into account elements such as the impact of the crisis on different sectors of women on both sides of the dividing line of the armed forces. Since 2014 the war in the Ukraine has generated serious damage to its civil population, including specific forms of damage to women, particularly those in situations of greater vulnerability. Amongst many other damages, forcible displacement and difficulty of access to livelihood components for displaced women; a situation of economic vulnerability for elderly women in the eastern zone of the Ukraine but directly affected by the conflict, including obstacles at the dividing line junction for access to pensions and aid; risks of slave traffic for purposes of sexual exploitation; gender violence in private households, including that inflicted by former war combatants. The gender reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission have thereby tracked this. Furthermore, in the areas controlled by the self-proclaimed popular republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, organisations of women pinpointed a reduction of support and resources to women who were victims of domestic violence, as the OHCHR noted in a 2021 report. According to the organisation, due to restrictions to independent activism in these regions, very few activists for the rights of women could continue working in the area and those who do so do so at a risk to their personal security.
The circumstances of war have, in turn, occurred in a broader context of links between the economic order and gender insecurity. This way, a joint 2017 shadow report from eight organisations (7 Ukrainian organisations and an international one, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF) directed by the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women) Committee raised the alert as to how austerity measures imposed as conditions by international financial organisations, mainly the IMF, had exacerbated the socio-economic impacts of war (and negatively impacted economic and social rights), specifically including women, and especially women in rural regions.
The war in the Ukraine has also had serious consequences over boys and girls. In its 2020 report, the SMM (OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to the Ukraine) indicated how the presence of military forces and equipment at less than one kilometre from educational installations and its use by the Ukrainian armed forces and by armed non-state actors endangered the lives of boys and girls as well as their teachers, who were mainly women. According to Save the Children International (SCI), 750 educational centres have endured damages since 2014. The conflict has left both common and differentiated marks on boys and girls, according to a 2019 report from the SCI. The war has had a profound psychological effect on children, with trauma symptoms in all age groups. The SCI identified distinctive physical risks, including boys’ fears of being beaten into becoming soldiers and girls’ fears of being sexually assaulted by soldiers. In turn, boys face a major risk of becoming injured by the presence of mines and explosive remnants, according to the SCI, among many other gender impacts. The Donbas region continues to be one of the areas most affected by mines and explosive remnants, as the International Committee of the Red Cross noted in 2021.
In the third place, the placing at the centre of human and gender security for the population east of the Ukraine leads us to refuse military paths, including those that are presented as “military dissuasion.” The risk of human and gender security – more human loss, more forcible displacement, a major deterioration of socio-economic conditions for women, major child trauma, among many other possible impacts – ought to lead us to intensify every possible diplomatic means; to explore new paths, like that of the inclusion of the Ukraine in NATO, even given the division in public opinion over whether or not the Ukraine should adhere to NATO; and to increase support to local initiatives in peace-building, including civil society and activist women organisations.
In the fourth place, from the outset and up until now the negotiating process over the Ukraine has revealed a serious gender bias, built over a negotiation framework (the OSCE Normandy Format and the Trilateral Contact Group) with no room for direct involvement by other players who are not the conflict parties or mediators, women from civil society from the different areas affected by the conflict. These are formal negotiations with few links providing initiatives for dialogue with civil society.
Added to this are also the co-opted members of an agenda for women, peace and security from NATO and the Ukrainian government, as pointed out by the WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Ress, which implies – among other issues – that women are forced to sign up to military service, even as they remain excluded from participation in current decisions. The existence of different visions between different spheres of women in the Ukraine over how to promote peace and security – a heterogeneity also compiled by the SMM – is in line with tensions in other latitudes between perspectives of securitization and feminist peace-building and do not appear to be unrelated to the use of the agenda for political, military, state and intergovernmental players. Be that as it may, it is not about imposing external visions on the local priorities of the 1325 agenda, but it is about at the very least recognising this heterogeneity and these tensions and not naturalising security options.
This being so, there is an urgent need to strengthen support for work defending human rights and the rights of women and LGTBI people, which the Ukrainian civil society and other countries affected by the military escalation are achieving, to reinforce local initiatives for dialogue created by civil society, to enhance international diplomatic means and the connections between the different levels of negotiation and dialogue, with the participation of women. Internationally, and in the context of tensions between military security approaches as opposed to human and feminist security approaches, we need to multiply efforts and public discourse to foster policies and resources that respond to people’s safety, including women’s safety.