In recent years, the actions of FEMEN have been featured in many international media outlets. Originating as a Ukrainian feminist movement in 2008, FEMEN has since acquired an international position, establishing their European headquarters in Paris and expanding their focus on women's rights violations worldwide. Nowadays the movement’s voice is heard all over the world. The FEMEN movement describes itself as “a founder of a new wave of feminism of the third millennium”. Their goal, like many other feminist activist groups in the past, is undermining the foundations of the male dominated world. Their tactics are using their topless bodies, on which are written, often in blood-red, a variety of shocking slogans to catch the public’s attention. FEMEN became famous for their playfully orchestrated topless protests that targeted women’s rights violations in Ukrainian society and most prominently the sex trade industry. FEMEN blamed the economy for ruling out women and letting them slip into the sex trade industry to make a living.
After the transition to a market-economy that followed the fall of communism in Ukraine in the beginning of the nineties, women (and men) officially gained new social and political rights, for example the right to association and political participation. And according to the new Ukrainian Constitution, the equality of men and women would be guaranteed with regards to political and cultural activities, in educational and vocational training, as well as in employment and wages.
However, the law did not always correspond with reality. After Ukraine’s transition to a market-economy, many discriminatory practices that were rooted in the unequal treatment of women and men during communism remained. According to communist ideology, both men and women workers were formally equal, but in reality the woman was seen as a mother and family caretaker first, and a worker second. This meant that women often had to deal with a double burden. Despite the formal guarantee of equality, traditional gender roles prevailed. Discrimination concerning positions and wages was rampant, because by holding lower-status jobs, women could find more time to act as caretakers for the family.
In many Eastern European communist countries women were seen as having poor assertion skills and fear of responsibility in the workplace. Women were even accused of evading success – as if they were not fit for higher ranking jobs. These views and practices were integrated deeply into social culture and did not disappear overnight. It even seems that after the transition there has been a surge of traditional attitudes toward gender roles in most post-communist Eastern European states. The Ukraine is no exception.
Gender discrimination in the labor force remains common in the Ukraine and is one of the main reasons for the high unemployment rate of women when compared to men with similar educational backgrounds. Both private businesses and government agencies often prefer male applicants in their job advertisements. Even when women are employed they tend to earn only 70% of the salary of men in equal positions. This trend leaves many Ukrainian women with the lowest ranking and lowest paying jobs.
Furthermore, women are not well represented in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament. They make up less than 10% of the representatives, which makes the political culture in Ukraine highly male-dominated. President Viktor Yanukovych even dared to attract foreign investors by promoting Ukrainian women in a controversial phrase during his speech at the annual International Economic Forum in Davos in 2011. Yanukovych said: “In order to 'Switch On Ukraine' it is enough to look at it with your own eyes when chestnuts start blooming in Kiev and Ukrainian women start undressing. To see this beauty is amazing.” FEMEN activists seized the first opportunity they had: a few days later they stood at the gates of the World Economic Forum in Kiev, bearing slogans like “Ukraine is Not a Brothel”, fighting for their right to be treated equally and with respect by their President.
Activist movements like FEMEN are vital for changing the position of women throughout the world because they do not only address the problem in the media, influencing public opinion, but they also empower women to challenge the limitations imposed on their lives. Furthermore, they create networks that enhance the ability to recognize and tackle unequal and oppressive gender relations.
By Anna Katarzyna Duszczyk.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- J. Mertus, "Women’s Human Rights in Central and Eastern Europe", in K.D. Askin and D.M. Koening, Women and International Human Rights Law, Vol. 3, Transnational Publishers Inc., 2001, pp. 613-699.
- M.M. Ferree, "Globalization and Feminism: Opportunities and Obstacles for Activism in the Global Arena", in M.M. Ferree and A.M. Tripp, Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights, New York University Press, 2006, pp. 1-23.