Another Unwomanly Face of War, before a Womanly Face of Peace?
By Annalisa Ciampi
It has been said that Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has set the clock back to 1938. It is the application of military force as a means of coercion and dispute settlement, in breach of the prohibition of the use of force. And it is the failure of Western diplomacy: from French President’s Macron to Mr. Borrel, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
As Russian troops advanced on Kyiv and the conflict intensified, Ukraine’s President, Mr. Zelensky, imposed a martial law and temporarily restricted all men aged 18-60 to leave the country “in order to ensure the defense of the state, maintaining combat and mobilization readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations”. Hundreds of men have been lining up in Kyiv to join the Ukrainian army.
As a result, moms – who had been first reported to put stickers on their children’s clothes when they would go to school, on which they indicated their blood type – started to flee the country. Women and girls, together with the children and the aged, have made up the majority of those crossing the border out of Ukraine, as men are required to stay and fight.
Has the world set the clock back of three quarters of a century or more, in the history of the emancipation of women? Are we back to square one, where political, economic and military might is firmly – for right or wrong – in the hands of men, while women populate the back stages and the households, flee the battle fields and take care of the children and the elderly?
Or perhaps the thousands of women and children leaving Ukraine as men stay to fight harshly remind us that we never moved much beyond that square one, despite the rhetoric of women emancipation in all realms of society, including the military. In spite of all progressive narratives, the Ukrainian war and humanitarian crisis remind us that our societies remain deeply divided along multiple lines: national, ethnical, racial and also gender lines.
But there is a third hypothesis: that of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, a masterpiece of women in the Second World War, who entered war in masculine ways that broke the social norms of what it meant to be a woman at the time. Some women were forced into war and had to adapt to their circumstances. Because of war, these women had to give up their social identities as women in order to become soldiers. However, after the war was over, they returned home and could not idly stand by as they did before because they now had the minds of soldiers from war. Their lives were forever changed and once your identity undergoes a change, it is difficult to revert back. Svetlana Alexievich was born in western Ukrainian to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother and grew up in Belarus. She is a Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian who writes in Russian. She is the first writer from Belarus to be awarded, in 2015, the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
It is perhaps an irony of history or a destiny that a Ukrainian war had to remind us of the enduring truth of Alexievich’s Unwomanly Face of War. Indeed, women do not wage war, nor do they fight wars. What then of the social identities of women? Women’s multiple social identities are not only of mothers, householders, and caregivers for children and the elderly. In politics, as in business, women are reportedly more prone than men to solve problems, to promote inclusion and equality, and to contribute to lasting solutions. For example, women made a difference in the Northern Ireland peace efforts in four ways: they worked across lines, acted as honest brokers, broadened the agenda, and built public support. Women’s contributions to formal negotiations directly influenced the content and success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace and economic growth since then.
Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on Women and peace and security recognized the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, reconstruction and maintenance of peace and the humanitarian response. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations member states in the General Assembly in 2015, also acknowledges that “women’s direct participation in peace processes has shown to be a building block for lasting agreements” (see Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG 16)). Yet between 1992 and 2019, women represented on average 6% of mediators, 6% of signatories and 13% of negotiators in major peace processes worldwide.
Before and during the current Ukrainian conflict, women – and women’s soft powers – have remained outside not only the military realm, but also the political arena. Starting with his Statement on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine of February 23, 2022, US President Biden has consistently and repeatedly called for “accountability” and “sanctions”, the necessity to impose measures that inflict pain on Russia, so that it pay a continuing high price over time. The free world has followed along in the race to hold Putin accountable: the 27 members of the European Union — including France, Germany, Italy — as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and many others. Even Switzerland is inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine.
Women are off the stage or silent – like Kamala Harris standing with the American first lady behind President Biden, as he was delivering his State of the Union Address on March 1, 2022. Female political leadership has been notably absent – with the one notable exception of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Borrowing the language of men, she also “targets”, “sanctions”, “shuts down”, “prohibits”, “bans” (see e.g. Statement by President von der Leyen on Ukraine (europa.eu). Angela Merkel’s role as mediator in the Ukrainian crisis was flagged but has not materialized as yet.
On March 3, 2022, a UN General Assembly resolution condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the support of 141 countries out of 193 and a standing ovation in the chamber. With only a handful of nations having voted against (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria), Putin’s Russia is now isolated from the world more than it has ever been. But so, is the rest of the world from Russia. Two worlds unable to speak a common language. Or perhaps they have a common language, that of coercion by the use of force (direct or indirect) and sanctions. Coercion by force calls for more sanctions, and after every speech announcing new measures the war on ground raises in magnitude and harshness.
The continued absence of women’s contribution to the diplomatic and decision-making tables means a loss of plurality and creativity that could be beneficial to the negotiations – however inconsequential they appear in the shadow of war. As negotiations continue as the war, sustained attention must be given to the much needed perspectives that only women can provide.
Time is ripe to rephrase UN Secretary General Kofi Anna’s famous statement in 2005 on the empowerment of women as “the most effective development tool”: The empowerment of women could be the most effective tool to bring peace closer.
On international women’s day one wishes that the Ukrainian war act as a reminder of not only The Unwomanly Face of War but also The Womanly Face of Peace – awaiting to be written. Soon.
Annalisa Ciampi is an academic and an international lawyer specializing in human rights and international justice. She is one of the women experts included in the 100esperte database (international politics area) and a European Network for Women Excellence – ENWE Ambassador.