Why is equality essential to a successful democracy?

Olena Yena reflects upon Ukraine’s remarkable transformation in the realm of women's empowerment. 


The DemWorks Podcast and Video series continues to celebrate International Youth Day by exploring the importance of gender equality in democracy.  In our sixth episode, Laura Jewett, NDI’s regional director for programs in Eurasia speaks with Olena Yena, who directs the Women Lead program in NDI’s Ukraine office.

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Olena spearheads NDI initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality, enhancing women's political participation and combating gender stereotypes and discrimination. Olena reflects upon Ukraine’s remarkable transformation in the realm of women's empowerment.

Laura Jewett: Hello, my name is Laura Jewett. I'm the regional director for programs in Eurasia at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., and I'll be your host for this DemWorks podcast. It's no secret democracy faces substantial challenges around the world. But while the challenges are great, at NDI we believe the opportunities are even greater. For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small-‘d’ democrats around the world to help countries develop the democratic institutions, practices and skills necessary for success. Over that period, we've worked in more than 150 countries. Through our DemWorks podcasts, we're engaging in conversation with those who've been on the frontlines of democratic development work around the world. They'll share what they do and how they do it, their on-the-ground experiences, the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, and the unique national contexts in which they must operate—and in the process show how DEMOCRACY WORKS.

Today, I'm joined in conversation with Olena Yena, who directs the Women Lead program in NDI’s Ukraine office. In this role, Olena spearheads NDI initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality, enhancing women's political participation, and combating gender stereotypes and discrimination. Olena was the architect of an initiative that resulted in establishing a women's parliamentary caucus in Ukraine. She leads a talented team of seventeen people who work on gender programs for NDI in Ukraine. Olena has also worked on NDI programs focused on governance and political parties, and prior to joining NDI she worked in the public and private sectors. Olena's leadership within NDI has given her a front-row seat to a remarkable transformation in the realm of women's empowerment in Ukraine, so I'm delighted that she can share some of her reflections with us today. Olena, welcome and thank you for joining us for this DemWorks podcast.

Olena Yena: Thank you, Laura. Hello, everyone. 

Jewett: So, Elena, it was only in 2010—nine years ago—that NDI and Ukraine began conducting programs focused on women's participation in earnest, and you had a big hand in pushing NDI in that direction. What motivated you to advocate for women's programming?

Yena: Thank you, that's a great question. I've always had a personal motivation, because I am a mother of two daughters, and I want Ukraine to be a better place for them—more democratic and more equal. But also, my work that I had done prior to when we started our gender program prompted me that something is probably not right if we talk to political party leaders who are all men, but I work with all those extremely talented women who do lots of very hard work in political parties, and they're not where they should be. They're not among the leaders. So I thought there's probably something that needs to be addressed in terms of barriers. There is something that hampers these women from taking the leadership positions. I noticed back then that it's always women who do all the work, but when it comes to important decisions such as who's going to run, who's going to be on the top of the party list, for some reason women disappear at this point. So I've always wanted NDI to focus on that, because I'm convinced that unless you tackle this political angle, unless you change strategies and the way that women are advanced in the political field, we probably will not be seeing a lot of change in other sectors, in other spheres. So this was my great motivation, and I was really happy when we were able back in 2010 to start this program with a very passionate team, a small team back then but with something that we really believed in. We started talking to women MPs in Ukraine, and asking them if they think along the same lines. It was less than 9% women in the Ukrainian parliament back in 2010, and this is in a country where the rate of higher education among women is larger than that of men. It's in a country where women make up more than 50% of the Ukrainian population, and they make up almost two-thirds of its voters. They need to be represented properly. We were motivated by the reaction of these women who were in the parliament, in the minority, who talked to us about how it is tremendously difficult to pursue their agenda in the parliament. Those were at that time very established women who had gone through business, political careers and who really wanted to bring about change. But very, very soon after we started the program we realized that we didn't have enough credible, comprehensive data to rely our thinking on, and to have some strong arguments when we talk to political party leaders, to NGO leaders, and to the media. Because it was all about this stereotypical perception about how people do not vote for women in Ukraine. But at the same time, Ukrainian society was full of deeply rooted stereotypes about how Ukrainian women are so strong. There is this very popular association of women with the neck, while men are the hats. That would mean that wherever the neck turns, the hat is looking in that direction

Jewett: Which was meant to be a sort of compliment to women, but a sexist one. 

Yena: Right, absolutely. If you stop a Ukrainian on a street in Kiev or elsewhere in the country, you'd probably hear: “Oh, do you think there is an issue with gender equality? We have strong, talented, beautiful women in Ukraine, right?” But something happens when it comes to ruling this country, and women are not included. So we decided to look into public opinion. What's going on? Back then, we learned very quickly that Ukrainian society looks at women as agents of change—someone who can change the political culture of this country. So this all made a great motivation for me.

Jewett: Yeah, it seems like that finding from the research was a key that opened a lot of doors that we maybe didn't anticipate. So, your team has conducted a lot of really interesting and groundbreaking research on gender issues. What have been some of the other more surprising or encouraging findings from that research? 

Yena: We did, we did. We try to measure public opinion research, and the dynamics of it, regularly, because this is what helps inform our own strategy, but also helps our partners, political party leaders in the government. In our most recent research that we conducted for the office of the vice prime minister of Ukraine, we clearly see that Ukraine is a nation that wants its country to be a fully functioning democracy. 81% of Ukrainians think it is very important that we become a fully functioning democracy. And when it comes to the characteristics that Ukrainians attribute to functioning democracy, it's about human rights being protected, and it's about equal justice for all. But we also found out that Ukraine is, and its population—its voters—are very progressive. More than 60% of Ukrainians want greater equality among men and women in political life. A large majority want greater equality among men and women when it comes to work life and family life. So, these stereotypes about how women should be pointing and directing men to the right direction, but standing behind the scenes, staying in the backroom when some important decisions are made: This is not actually true. This is not what Ukrainians want. They want both men and women to be equally involved in important decision-making processes in our country. This is what is really encouraging, and this is what the political leaders should be looking at. And they are, which is also very very interesting, in terms of how the elites are changing. 

Jewett: So, the stereotypes and assumptions that many Ukrainians have about gender roles really turn out not to be true. It seems like Ukrainians are actually quite progressive in their view, certainly about democracy, but also about gender issues. To what extent do you think political leaders have caught up with those attitudes?

Yena: I remember our meetings with parties even five years ago, and in those we would be asked to move on to the next agenda items when it comes to gender equality. It's a new day now. A lot of political party leaders have grasped the idea of why it is so important to make sure that women have their place when it comes to the decision-making within the party. They understand that it is not just the right thing to do. It is not just something that Ukraine's international partners want Ukraine to follow. It is what the Ukrainian society needs. The voters want newer, more modern, more progressive political parties to represent their interests, and that means that both men and women should be representing their interests. So, the party partners that NDI works with have been quite effective in embracing that understanding, and a lot of parties who are our partners have started doing some very interesting things within their own party structures. We were able to help them with setting up women's wings within the political parties. Those are really meaningful and powerful entities. They're not marginalized, ghetto-type organizations where women do their things. No, these are the real venues for women to make their voices heard, to contribute when it comes to policy decisions, platform decisions and election decisions in political parties. Things are not smooth in this process, and it's a difficult work-in-progress. It takes a lot of these brave women, courageous women—who face sometimes quite serious pushback even within their own political forces—but they have been able to build, to consolidate this energy around their efforts, to bringing other women, to come up with some really good decisions that convince their party leaders of how this is going to be beneficial for their parties to become more popular among the voters. This essentially comes to that. You would no longer see posters with all men in black suits and ties when it comes to elections, like it was ten years ago in Ukraine. You see more and more female panels when it comes to political talk shows. You would see less sexist language, discriminative and diminishing language when political party leaders would be talking to their women peers. So they do treat women as somebody who is equally important and who has a place at the table. Of course, there are different types of political party leaders, and we still need to talk more about what gender equality is. But what's important is that there’s a vast understanding among many stakeholders in Ukraine that equality between men and women is about economic growth, it is about security, it is about political development, moving on towards European values, democratic principles, and making Ukraine more modern. This is what Ukrainians want. We see this from our research. Ukrainians want to live in a modern country, and political leaders have to make sure they're not behind, that they’re next to the people. 

Jewett: Can I ask you to dig into one of the comments that you just made, which is that gender equality is a security issue. I'm not sure it's obvious to everyone how those two things are connected. What is the linkage there?

Yena: Ukraine is a country at war, and in fact it was the Revolution of Dignity, known as Euromaidan, and then the war that played a role of catalyst. Women have been able to show that they can be equally effective at the forefront of Ukraine's fight for its democratic future, for a less corrupt political leadership, and for a prosperous Ukraine. They have been able to contribute significantly to the peacemaking processes. One of the most prominent figures among Ukrainian leadership, who represents Ukraine in the Minsk group, who travels to Donbass most often is Iryna Herashchenko, the first vice speaker of the Verkhovna Rada. This woman— who's a mother of three, I think her youngest son is about five years old—so this all happened during the years of war—I think heard her visits to Donbass number in the hundreds. She talks to the soldiers, she talks to the people, she brings all of their needs back to the parliament, and to the president. She is the most passionate fighter for Ukrainian political and war prisoners, and there are other women who stand alongside her. For example, Iryna Friz, who was recently appointed as minister of veterans. There is a new ministry that has been established in Ukraine to deal with the aftermath that comes along with people fighting on the front. Or Ivanna Klympush Tsintsadze, the deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. This woman has been the champion in terms of bringing Ukraine closer to the standards of NATO, when it comes to the security and defence sector. We're now the country which looks deep into what it means that women and men have equal rights and opportunities when it comes to the security and defence sector. Just recently, they opened up—among the list of 450 professions previously banned for women—they opened up all the opportunities for women to be in military professions. They no longer need to be registered as cooks or nurses on the front. They can be snipers, and in all other combat professions, and be exposed to the same type of social benefits as their male colleagues are, and they do contribute. These days, this is how women are bringing change to political culture and the mindset of people. This is how—through their own work and their own contribution—they demonstrate that they should not be staying at home. 

Jewett: There's also a Kremlin angle to this issue as well. There is a lot of disinformation as part of hybrid warfare, and a lot of that is focused on gender issues, as part of a larger narrative about the decadence of Western values. How does that play out in Ukraine? 

Yena: There is a strong gender dimension to disinformation and hybrid war, because equality is being attributed to all those narratives that are aimed at making Ukraine a failed state, at compromising its aspiration to become a part of well-developed democracies. This is why gender is being used as a tool in this war. The notion, the concept of equality, of equal rights is being demonized. It's real essence and meaning are being perverted and manipulated with, and unfortunately it is happening on many fronts and in many formats. These messages reach people at different levels, starting from national leaders and national media, to the people who work at a really grassroots level. I'm afraid this has also been amplified domestically by those political forces in whose interests it is not for Ukraine to prosper, to move on in its democratic development. So we all need to be very strategic in how we look at this, in how we identify this disinformation and these messages that may resonate with a lot of people because they are being disguised as protection of traditional family values—speaking about gender as something which is really a threat to Ukrainian tradition and culture. But I think while no one can come up with the ready solution for disinformation these days, anywhere in the world, I think we still need to continue providing as much truthful information about what equality is and what it is not about, to people at different levels—and also expose them to the benefits of gender equality. For example, we work with people in the newly amalgamated communities in Ukraine.

Jewett: Which is part of a decentralization process that’s underway. One of the big achievements of this administration.

Yena: Right, it is one of the most successful reforms, and as more resources come down to the communities, people need to learn how to govern their communities. We teach them how to use gender-responsive budgeting as a very effective tool of making their communities equally effective for everyone, for women and men, boys and girls, people with different needs, so when they acquire great tools, using this responsive budgeting, these people are less prone to be receptive to these anti-gender messages. Because they know in practice how it works, and they understand that this has nothing to do with what these anti-gender narratives try to depict equality, how they try to present it. So it's really important that we work on many fronts, all those gender champions both in the government and in civil society, and when it comes to people—it's extremely important to pursue information campaigns. In these information campaigns, we talk about gender stereotypes that are harmful both for men and women, are a tremendously stressful burden for everyone. When people understand that it's about equal opportunities for everyone—for example when you talk to the fathers of daughters, and they understand that they probably would want their daughters to be equally paid with their sons for equal work. This is when they understand that it's about human rights. It has nothing to do with all those crazy narratives that they would hear, about how it is a threat to the families. Vice versa! It comes along the line of making families stronger, making every individual more confident and exposed to all the opportunities in their lives. 

Jewett: So what I hear you saying is that promoting gender equality is not just a nice thing to do for women, and it's not just that it's good for democracy, but it's in the political interest of political leaders and political parties, and it's also in support of national security and sovereignty, and Ukraine's independence. I'm not sure everyone necessarily thinks of it that way. Ukraine just had a dramatic presidential election where there was a peaceful transfer of power, which was a great achievement for Ukraine to have yet another democratic election. But parliamentary elections will follow pretty soon—sometime in 2019—what role do you think women will play in that election, and what impact do you think the election may have on the question of equality for men and women? 

Yena: I think women will play a very important role. I think there will be more women running for office, both in the 2019 parliamentary elections and in the 2020 local elections. My belief is based on my everyday work with these women, but also on the research data that we have. We see that Ukrainians want greater women's involvement in political life. Ukrainians are very well aware of the status quo. They do understand that it is still a male-dominated arena, but they want this to be a field with equal rights, and with a level playing field for everyone, and they want women to represent their interests. At the same time, we see that women are ready to take this role of somebody who decides about the lives of their communities. We conducted in-depth interviews, and we conducted focus groups with both men and women. For example, men whom we asked: “What would happen in Ukraine if there are more women who are in elected office?” This is what we heard: There will be more order in Ukraine, Ukraine will be more democratic, it will be closer to the EU, and there will be less corruption. Women think they are the ones that have the right and should be deciding how to spend the increased budget in the amalgamated communities, and they are ready to do so. There are still some barriers that are deeply rooted in people's minds—including women's minds—so we still need to work on those, as well on some institutional barriers that exist for women. This is where the work is multi-faceted. We work with political parties trying to create a more enabling environment for women within political parties, but as I said, we have progressed as a nation a lot in this. It is critically important that with this new political period, with these new political elites that will come with these elections, that this momentum is kept for Ukraine, that they will continue this work, that they will continue building alliances rather than dividing amongst themselves, and building on the successes, continuing engaging with women on many fronts: Women in politics, both at the national and local level, women from the civil society, women in business. It is important that this agenda that has been shaped for Ukraine, which is very focused on gender, is pursued by the new political leaders. It is also critically important that the new leaders will cooperate with those who are in power now but will soon be leaving. Their gains should not be—their achievements should not be—underestimated. I think within these five years Ukraine has made a real breakthrough in terms of how gender is perceived. This work was being done on many fronts, even in the media. You would not hear things that you would hear from the leaders of the country previously, speaking about women. You would not even imagine a situation when a head of state would invite everyone to come to Kiev in spring because this is when women undress, and it becomes more beautiful. 

Jewett: How long ago was that?

Yena: I think it was in 2013 or ‘14.

Jewett: So not long ago.

Yena: Not long ago.

Jewett: But it would be more unthinkable now.

Yena: Absolutely. You would not imagine. In fact, we heard many leaders of this country speaking at the Ukrainian women's congresses in the span of the last two years about how Ukraine needs gender quotas, so that Ukrainians are equally represented on all fronts. How we need to combat domestic violence, how we need to ratify the Istanbul Convention, how we need to make sure that there is equal pay. This is how the narrative has changed. The new political leaders—especially acknowledging that there is not a lot of experience in the new team of the president-elect—that it is critically important that they continue with that course.

Jewett: From what I hear you saying, there are some structural barriers to women advancing—particularly in politics—and those are within political parties and in the parliament, where there are traditional channels and women have not been particularly welcomed. And there are barriers in the minds of women who might be political leaders but don't see themselves that way, and have internalized somehow that they don't belong in politics. And yet, Ukrainian voters are not one of the barriers. Ukrainian voters are more than willing to vote for women, in fact they're demanding that they have more women to choose from. Which I think is really a good situation for Ukraine to be in—to have that one asset. 

Yena: You’re right, Laura. The demand side in Ukraine is there. People want more women in power. In fact, the vast majority of Ukrainians according NDI’s polls disagree that there will be less-qualified managers, less-qualified political leaders, if there are more women in politics. They also disagree that there is a lack of qualified women to run for office, and also—we know for sure because we've tested this in many ways through our public opinion research—we know for sure that gender is not a factor when it comes to voting for Ukrainians. They do still see women as those agents of change. But you're also right: I have worked with so many women who helped so many men get elected, until they realized that this is their place too, that they're qualified, they're educated enough, they're trained enough. They just need to empower themselves. It’s always this way when it comes to women: Women have to select themselves first before the party selects them, and then voters elect them. And you have to work on these rooted barriers in women's minds, that they're not good enough, that they probably do not know everything they need to know to run for office. Interestingly, I have never run into a single man who would consider himself not ready to run for office. But I have met probably hundreds of women who would still not be confident even though they are very well-educated, even though they would pursue stellar careers. But what should help with this is also voter support. As I speak, I now remember the story of one of our partners from Odessa, [...]. She's a member of the Odessa City Council. She was running for the first time, with the tremendous support of voters, because she was running on real issues for people. She was running on things like stopping corruption in land-selling in the City Council, helping disabled people. Right after she was elected, she was faced with a very ugly campaign against her, and what helped her is meetings with her voters. They told her: “We know this is not you. We know all the information they disclosed is not true about you. Keep doing what you do, and we will be behind you.” This is what motivates women, because they are there to make the change.

Jewett: You paint a picture that makes me optimistic for Ukraine, so thank you so much, Olena, for taking time to share your stories and perspective with us, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. Share DemWorks—both our podcasts and our videos—on social media, to amplify the voice of Democracy Heroes such as Olena Yena. You can discover more about risk-taking women through our DemWorks videos. Please also go to our website,, for more details about NDI and its work, including our new 35th anniversary report—fresh off the presses—and while you're there sign up for our newsletter. I'm Laura Jewett. This has been NDI’s DemWorks podcast. Thank you for listening.