Another deeply gendered war is unfolding in Ukraine | Women’s rights

Even before the Russian military fired its first strikes in its assault on Ukraine, there were signs that this conflict, like all wars, would upend the peacetime relationships and identities of men, women and people of all kinds and inflict very serious suffering on them. particular ways.

Writing about World War II, Russian author Svetlana Alexievich said that “women’s war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting and its own range of feelings. His own words. There are no heroes and amazing feats, there are just people who are busy doing inhumanely human things.

Last week, a picture of an injured, pregnant Ukrainian woman curled up on a stretcher appeared on the front pages of almost every British newspaper, and Western leaders, as well as the Ukrainian president, mentioned the horrors facing women and children in every speech calling for unity. But Ukraine’s Western supporters, particularly the United States, NATO and the European Union, who have insisted for more than two decades now that women’s safety shapes their approach to handling the war , have done little to show that gender will be their framework, or even a framework, for dealing with Ukraine’s predicament.

We are already seeing this war cementing old gender roles and inflicting terrible damage on people of all genders in the process. The forced universal conscription of men in Ukraine and in the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is resurrecting pairs of men as defender-warriors and women as fragile and in need of protection. At the same time, the dozens of Ukrainian women who have signed up to fight and the narrative images of blonde soldiers armed with guns that roam social media make it difficult to talk about gender and this war in a conventional way.

Ukraine grapples with the tensions of a male narrative that plays out in border politics and the tale of brave Ukrainian female warriors rising up to repel the advancing enemy. Darkest of all is the imagery of mobilized children. Recently, a photo of a little girl with a pacifier in her mouth perched on a window with a gun circulated online. What might prove most challenging for a traditional gender-sensitive approach to this war is the emerging and mainstream glorification of the militarization of an entire society.

Despite the universal forced conscription, many men do not wish to fight. The men trying to leave the country were shamed by the mob for not wanting to stay. Trans women who are identified as men in their documents have been stopped at the border and prevented from leaving.

We know from other contexts where there seemed to be no alternative but to mobilize men of fighting age that this often causes other problems down the line. In Nigeria too, communities saw little choice but for young and middle-aged men (and some women too) to join combat groups to defend themselves against Boko Haram attacks. Protecting family and community was integral to what it meant to be a good man, so men and even teenagers faced significant pressure – from friends and other members of their community, state and themselves – to join such groups. This development blurred the line between combatants and civilians and meant that all people living in these places were considered fair targets.

In conflicts where similar dynamics are at play, there is little time in the urgency of combat to train these civilian (and other) men and women who are mobilizing. Any training provided tends to focus on weapons skills rather than vital concepts of how to wage war in a manner consistent with human rights, international humanitarian law and international norms. of civil protection. Unsurprisingly, levels of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity are higher in conflicts where civilians are mobilized in this way. Indeed, new Ukrainian laws make it legal for anyone to kill invaders. Yet discussions around military support for Ukraine have so far not sufficiently focused on the need to mitigate civilian damage during operations.

The response to date not only fails to consider the potential dangers of forced conscription for men and boys, it also fails to fully consider the risks it creates for women and girls. It is possible that Russia’s floundering war will be further slowed by a compromise, but it seems that for the foreseeable weeks women will be left to sail to safety and charged with their own welfare as well as that of their children. and elders they have with them, without the usual support of their partners. Because females without males are considered more vulnerable, they are more likely to be preyed upon. The strain to find shelter and food, access to health care and education will be acute, and even worse for people with disabilities. Yet, not enough attention is paid to these intersectional and gendered vulnerabilities, with people with disabilities saying they are left to fend for themselves. Nor to the 100,000 to 200,000 children isolated from society in Ukrainian orphanages and at risk of violence, abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labour.

Gender also seems absent from the discussion of non-military responses. The unexpected Western unity and swift crushing blow of sanctions imposed on Russia by Ukraine’s allies may first be felt most harshly by the affluent and internationally-minded middle class, but over time, so As the economy collapses, those who are already the most marginalized and vulnerable will be hit the hardest. We know from the most punitive sanctions regimes in recent memory, imposed on Iran and Venezuela, that these measures erode women’s labor market participation and leadership in key sectors, undermine feminist activism and reinforce securo-patriarchy, while nervous governments redouble their male propaganda. . The international repercussions of the sanctions – rising gas prices and grain shortages that are already stemming from a disruption in Russian and Ukrainian supplies – will also be felt by the world’s most vulnerable people, including the disproportionate number of women. , people with disabilities and children already facing hunger and poverty.

And we know that in times of conflict and economic uncertainty, levels of gender-based violence rise. The way in which the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of the military forces is already well documented. The journeys across borders and into the homes of strangers undertaken by the more than two million Ukrainians who have fled so far (mainly women and children) leave them vulnerable to human traffickers and the sexual exploitation. Women selling sex may be at risk of violence by soldiers and further human rights violations. Even when the fighting stops, there will be no respite. Other conflicts show that gender-based violence increases during fighting and can increase even more when the bullets stop and men suffering from war trauma return home, only to find that women have been forced into roles decision-makers during their absence.

Indeed, Russia’s security concerns and NATO’s revival have reconfigured the Cold War. But before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s take on bare-chested riding and his emphasis on manly physical prowess indicated that he saw his country’s path as militant, even militant, and showed how militarism is linked to this very particular notion. of masculinity.

Russian disinformation campaigns have attempted to implant the idea that entry into NATO will require the acceptance of Western gender relations and the excision of traditional values. This clash of gender norms and associated masculinities finds the greatest resonance in the brothers of conflict, the Foreign Legion called for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and endorsed by Liz Truss, British Foreign Secretary. This image – whether it’s the all-male Cabinet shared in Zelenskyy’s Telegram videos or the Biden-Putin-Zelenskyy triad – is missing women with feminist perspectives. They are largely marginalized in real decision-making nationally and globally in this conflict despite the mobilization of feminists in Russia and elsewhere against the war.

The past two weeks have demonstrated how quickly countries are resorting to old ways of acting in times of crisis. In the midst of a global pandemic and climate crisis, resources that have proven hard to come by to deliver decent basic services and reshape economic systems in more (climatically) just ways have been quickly mobilized for health spending. defense. To widespread applause, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, announced the immediate creation of a €100 billion fund to boost military strength and a sustained increase in defense spending over the next few years. Sweden, Denmark and Poland also agreed to boost military spending.

Is this arms race, this action that seems certain to harm gender equality and this world of militarized masculinities really the future we want? The alternatives seem impossible to imagine right now. In the midst of the crisis, the drumbeat of war is overwhelming. The time to think, analyze and reflect before acting seems like a luxury for another time. Yet we have been here so many times before and it is vital to react differently.

Countries like Canada, France, Spain, Finland and Sweden say they have a feminist foreign policy. Yet mentions of the deeply gendered harms inflicted by this war and how to better protect people of all genders have been rare in responses from nations that say they are committed to gender equality and women’s rights until now. now overshadowed by a focus on increased arms shipments and economic sanctions. These states should not only aim to apply these policies on the battlefields of the Global South where they usually administer their Women, Peace and Security agenda. They must translate into being more prepared, more vocal and mitigating gender bias during a war that is taking place in Europe itself.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.