When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Natalia Karbowska sprang into action. She has since been working in overdrive to provide funding and humanitarian assistance to thousands of Ukrainian women whose lives have been destroyed by the Russian invasion, even after a missile hit part of her home in the heart of Kyiv.
Karbowska is the director of strategic development for the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Women’s Fund, the only such fund in the country. Under her leadership, the organization has worked 24/7 to issue rapid-response grants to organizations that provide emergency assistance to families fleeing the war — 90 percent of whom are women and children. She also helps distribute food, water and hygiene products to women and girls across the country.
“Women are the majority of IDPs,” she said, referring to internally displaced people. “They do not have jobs. They do not have money to feed themselves and their families. But we often see women only as victims. And this prevents us from seeing them as solutions.”
Karbowska is a testament to the vital role that women and civil society play in determining Ukraine’s path to recovery.
Ukrainian and international leaders are gathering in London next month for a summit to generate critical support for Ukraine’s economic and social recovery. The Ukraine Recovery Conference, held June 21-22, is meant to encourage private investment in the regions of Ukraine that have been most affected by bombings and to address the estimated $411 billion postwar reconstruction costs.
The meeting is also an opportunity to “build forward,” according to Karbowska, and to lay the groundwork for a new social contract to ensure inclusive, sustainable recovery for all Ukrainians.
Placing gender equality and women’s meaningful participation at the forefront of these efforts is key to success. This means recognizing that the war is affecting women and girls differently from men and boys and taking into account their needs and priorities from the start of the recovery and reconstruction process. It also means ensuring that women and civil society — who have been indispensable as first responders in the war — are central to the planning, distribution and oversight of funds in the reconstruction effort.
Initial discussions on a Ukrainian recovery plan occurred at two international conferences last year, in Lugano and Berlin. However, neither tried to include women and civil society groups in the main agenda. In fact, Olena Halushka, a board member of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, was the only representative of Ukrainian civil society among the more than 30 conference speakers in Berlin.
Including women in sustainable rebuilding is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart move for realizing Ukraine’s democratic future.
Ukrainian women and civil society organizations are leading humanitarian relief work. Local women-led groups, like Karbowska’s fund, have expanded their role in communities and are using their vast networks to get aid to people. With access to marginalized and hard-to-reach communities, they and others like them are best suited to be contributing to recovery discussions.
“Women who are protecting the country from inside know how to be crisis managers now. And this is the skill that, in my opinion, will be very much needed for the whole country when we start recovery,” Karbowska said.
Women also represent the majority of the highly educated and skilled workforce in Ukraine. They are well positioned to help strengthen anticorruption measures, modernize the energy sector and drive Ukraine’s reform agenda, which are all essential components to meet the conditions for Ukraine’s potential accession to the European Union.
The war in Ukraine is an urgent reminder of the relevance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security, or WPS. Authorized in 2000, it calls for the meaningful inclusion of women in all areas of peace-building and conflict resolution, including post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. Ukraine’s own national action plan on the women, peace and security agenda recognizes that women must be engaged in “every step of the reconstruction process.”
The Group of 7 (G7) and top donor countries, especially those with feminist foreign policies, have also promoted gender equality as fundamental pillars of their development strategies. The recent G7 communiqué commits to “advancing, implementing and strengthening” the WPS agenda, along with unwavering support for “sustainable and resilient recovery and green reconstruction of Ukraine.” These efforts should go hand in hand.
As Britain and Ukraine prepare to host the Ukraine Recovery Conference in June, here are five recommendations for action:
First, Ukrainian women and civil society experts, especially in energy, anticorruption, finance and social and human development sectors, must be at the table at the London gathering. Recovery will be realized only if women and civil society are fully involved in the rebuilding.
Second, reconstruction should enable women’s active participation in Ukraine’s recovery and postwar society. International financial institutions and private donors should invest in women-owned and women-led businesses and small and medium-sized companies, as well as local nongovernmental organizations, women-led groups and human-rights monitoring entities, who can all partner with the government on aid delivery and oversight. Creating jobs for women and men will be crucial.
Third, private investments should focus on rebuilding social infrastructure and services to reduce burdens on women, reincorporate internally displaced people and strengthen economic recovery. Hard-security measures, like de-mining, are prerequisites for recovery. Additionally, Ukraine’s government should prioritize reopening schools and child care centers, support access to medical care and social assistance services and offer housing grants that are widely available to Ukrainians that have been displaced.
Fourth, physical infrastructure reconstruction needs to be paired with a comprehensive social, human-centric recovery plan to meet the needs of Ukrainians at the community level. Women and civil society need psychosocial support, financial resources and skills training to fully reap the benefits of and contribute to the reconstruction.
Lastly, new reporting mechanisms, like the Digital Ecosystem for Reconstruction Management (Dream), should be supported to allow transparent, accountable and equitable use of funds and strengthen anticorruption work. This mechanism should be gender-sensitive and paired with the collection of sex-disaggregated data across Ukraine’s municipalities. Reconstruction must be informed by realities on the ground.
The world has witnessed the courage, heroism and steadfast commitment to democracy of Ukrainian women and civil society despite a daily onslaught. As consequential decisions about Ukraine’s rebuilding processes are made in London, we hope the organizers will heed their calls.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on plans for Ukraine's postwar recovery?
Melanne Verveer is director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She was formerly US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues and worked at the center of the work of the US delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.