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  • Frances Fitzgerald

Ukrainian women are Breaking the Bias this International Women’s Day

The 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, with this year’s global theme of “Break the Bias”.

In any other year, even a year with COVID-19, break the bias would refer to our unfinished business of advancing gender equality, by combatting gender based violence, by advancing work-life balance, by sharing the care burden, by promoting women in science and technology, and by closing the gender pay gap.

But this year, for me, it is the Ukrainian women and children that preoccupy our thoughts on this International Women’s Day.

Ukrainian women taking up arms to defend their country. Ukrainian women giving birth in metro stations, with no privacy and in unhygienic surroundings. Ukrainian women sheltering their children night after night from Russian bombing. And Ukrainian women crossing the border to safety with vulnerable loved ones, while their husbands and sons cross the opposite way, into a war.

The image of an empowered woman, the one who has achieved gender equality, often appears in our minds as a high-powered woman in an important job, leading the way. Or as a female Prime Minister or President, calling the shots. Or, as Ireland knows all too well, a woman who can go for a jog beside a canal, in complete certainty that she is safe.

But this year Ukrainian women are showing us that in their lives breaking the bias can be just the freedom to take control of a desperate situation, and do what you can. Not subjugated, but a critical and crucial part of society, even in its darkest hours.

Regrettably, on this International Women’s Day, my mind goes to what other European women may be called upon to do as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We know that the consequences of the invasion and the resulting sanctions on Russia will have ramifications for all European Union countries, and women will be on the front line of our European response.

In the first instance, we know that our energy prices will be affected, even more than they already are. While we were already aware that Europe’s Green Deal and actions to combat climate change were absolutely essential for our survival, the situation in Ukraine has given an urgent necessity to our energy diversification efforts.

We need women at the centre of that energy transition. As the European Parliament highlighted last month, “women need to play stronger roles in the climate change space as leaders, elected representatives, professionals and technical agents for change,” and currently “women ... represent only 32 % of the renewable energy workforce globally”. The reality is that if we don’t have women at the centre of the energy transition, we cannot ensure it will be fully inclusive of their needs.

Secondly, we know that there will be a significant humanitarian consequence of this war, and we have already seen over a million refugees leaving Ukraine for Europe. Yet we know that when women flee conflict, they are often more vulnerable to gender based violence and human trafficking. In fact, there are already disturbing reports of Ukrainian women being targeted by human traffickers. We must make sure that women are safe as they arrive on European soil, and their unique needs are taken account of. Sanitary products and safe and clean hygiene facilities will be absolutely essential.

Finally, we know the health implications of this crisis. Not only the continuing risk that COVID-19 brings, but also as those who were seeking treatment for a wide range of illnesses and conditions cross the border into the European Union, the need to meet their medical requirements. Women account for 76% of healthcare workers in the EU and as we emerge from the two-year exhaustion of the COVID-19 crisis, they are once again being asked to step up and provide treatment and care to those coming from Ukraine. As always, our fantastic healthcare workers will meet the situation with grace and care – we must support them fully.

The women of Europe are under pressure, facing down generational challenge after generational challenge. Yet their resilience, dignity and grace should come as no surprise, and they too will meet this crisis.

This International Women’s Day, and every day, we see the strength of European women and particularly Ukrainian women.



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