KYIV -- On February 26, Oksana Mayboroda, a councilwoman in the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, addressed a town hall meeting with remarks about the importance of pedestrian-only zones in urban planning. She held her 2-year-old daughter while delivering the presentation.
In less than a week, Mayboroda faced a firestorm of criticism on social media after a man from her European Solidarity party posted a photo on Facebook and the first commenter asked, “What, nursery schools aren’t accepting toddlers anymore?”
Another comment said it was “improper” to appear onstage with her child.
And while some weighed in with support, posting pictures of their children at their workplaces, many of the more than 800 comments amounted to “political bullying, internalized misogyny, and discrimination based on motherhood,” Mayboroda, who had taken her daughter with her on the campaign trail ahead of elections in October, said on Facebook.
The online criticism provided a snapshot of attitudes ahead of International Women’s Day, which is marked around the world -- in some places more avidly than in others -- on March 8.
In Ukraine, not everybody is celebrating.
To feminist blogger Zoya Kazanzhy, Women’s Day is the “most deceptive and hypocritical holiday.”
A communications manager at the Kyiv-based public relations agency ECOMM and a native of the Odesa region, Kazanzhy told RFE/RL she started writing about her rejection of the holiday more than a decade ago. The way it is celebrated now is a “facade,” she said.
Women’s Day was first celebrated early in the 20th century in the United States and several European countries, amid a surge of socialist politics and growing calls for better labor conditions and equal rights with men in an array of matters such as work, voting, and seeking public office.
While it faded fast in the United States, reemerging only in recent decades, by the 1970s it had become a prominent holiday in the Soviet Union and some other countries. But somewhere along the line, calls for women’s rights and equality were eclipsed, to a substantial degree, by gifts of greeting cards, bouquets, and sweets.
In the run-up to the holiday, television and the Internet in Ukraine, Russia, and other former Soviet republics was full of ads, memes, and other content focusing on flowers, chocolates, hearts, and holiday recipes.
Classic gender roles tend to prevail, and critics say the holiday has long since ceased to be about striving for gender parity and celebrating the achievements of women -- especially outside the home and family.
It’s a disappointment for Tetyana Durnyeva, the executive director of a Kyiv NGO.
“Flowers are fine,” she said, but only if this kind of celebration is accompanied by serious discourse about “what barriers women face.”
Durnyeva’s organization is comprised of former NGO officers who were displaced from eastern Ukraine by the war that began after Russia-backed separatists seized parts of two provinces in the industrial region known as the Donbas in 2014. More than 13,000 people have been killed and the conflict continues.
Every year on March 8, she speaks to her two children about the importance of women’s suffrage and the fact that women weren’t allowed to vote in the past.
On March 8, I posted a bouquet of tulips on Facebook crossed out with a black line, saying I no longer will observe this holiday.”-- Former lawmaker Nataliya Veselova
While some gains have been made, “we still require more protection instead of flowers.… They are no substitute for attention [to issues affecting women disproportionately], and they don’t justify violence or the ‘glass ceiling,’” Durnyeva said, referring to the hurdles that hamper women’s progress toward high-level positions at work and in society.
Kazanzhy said that radical change is needed and that children should be taught “why women’s rights are important…starting in kindergarten.”
The state and citizens “need to rethink the holiday,” she said.
Iryna Shvets, a professor of economics and provost at the Donetsk National Technical University, holds a different view.
She gave her university, which was displaced after Russia-backed militants seized the regional capital and is now located in the government-held city of Pokrovsk, as an example of approximate gender parity: The president is a man, but two of the four provosts are women and department heads are roughly 50-50.
Women don’t really need the March 8 holiday, Shvets said, “because in essence, women don’t have to fight for their rights anymore -- we have all the rights.”
Equal rights on paper, perhaps, but research shows there are major inequities in real life.
In February, the data analysis consultancy Global People Strategist said in a report that the gender pay gap between men and women in Ukraine is about 32 percent.
On average nationwide, women make the equivalent of more than $4,000 a year less than men, according to an April 2020 study conducted by the Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine.
The same study found that only 23 percent of managers at workplaces in Ukraine are women, while a joint report by home security systems company Ring Ukraine and social-research firm Info Sapiens concluded that “gender stereotypes...contribute to gender inequality within leadership positions” as well as to gender-based pay disparity.
At home, meanwhile, men are apparently not much help, at least with small children. A 2020 survey by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) found that men did most of the rearing of children aged 3 or younger in only 2 percent of households, whereas mothers did most of the rearing in 85 percent of households.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, national parliament member Iryna Herashchenko lamented that women continue to be kept out of the “decision-making process” when it comes to important government affairs.
In local, regional, and national legislative elections, there is now a 40 percent quota for women candidates on political party lists.
But only 21 percent of the 422 occupied seats in the Verkhovna Rada, the national parliament, are held by women and all but three of the 23 cabinet ministers are women, while “women are basically absent” from influential posts in the presidential administration, she said.
There are no female generals in the armed forces and only one in the main domestic intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Herashchenko said.
It is “a male-dominated government.… There is no concept of parity with women.… It is a concept of sexism and stereotypes,” she said, adding that she believes March 8 “should be a holiday but not a day off” and should be “about solidarity and fighting for women’s rights.”
'We Always Had To Work'
Larysa Konovalyuk, a 58-year-old supermarket cashier who moved from Donetsk to Kyiv in 2018, also believes March 8 should be a working day. “We always had to work in Donetsk -- if you’re in a factory or mine, men and women alike,” she said.
For Natalia Veselova, a former lawmaker who is also from the Donbas, the stark events of seven years ago soured her on Women’s Day, which she now associates with upheaval, war, and occupation.
First, about 100 demonstrators were killed during the Euromaidan protest movement in Kyiv that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, precipitating Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in March of that year and its support for militants in the Donbas, where war broke out that April as Moscow fomented separatism.
By the time March 8 arrived in Donetsk, Veselova said, “busloads of Russians had arrived, occupied government buildings, set up tents with Russian and Soviet flags, and were playing old Soviet songs together with local fringe groups.”
“To me, this is unacceptable,” Veselova, who left Donetsk the following year and works for a a policy analysis group, said of the developments of spring 2014. “On March 8, I posted a bouquet of tulips on Facebook crossed out with a black line, saying I no longer will observe this holiday.”
As it has in many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the problems women face in Ukraine. Domestic violence has spiked since restrictive measures were first imposed in March 2020, Herashchenko said.
In 2018, the UNFPA said that more than 1.1 million women in Ukraine “suffer from physical, sexual or emotional violence in their families” annually.
Police statistics show there were 235,720 reported cases of domestic violence in 2020, an increase of 66 percent over 2019. And the UNFPA reported that in the second month of the initial lockdown, from April 13 to May 10, a 41 percent increase in “gender-based violence” was registered compared to the first month of restrictive measures.
A law that came into force that year criminalized domestic violence. It also contains provisions for services like shelters for battered victims and guarantees of punishment -- not a warning or probation -- for offenders who are found guilty.
But Kazanzhy said that that “many women tolerate domestic violence,” adding that “there is not enough research being done” and that improvements will be elusive unless the problem is given more attention.
A 2019 report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that 2 out of 3 women in Ukraine have experienced psychological, physical, or sexual violence. Only 32 percent of women who survive physical or sexual violence seek help, according to the UNFPA.
“What we still have is a society of closed male clubs, including in government bodies,” Kazanzhy said.