Two experts said Ukrainian women are at the center of the war – but often on the fringes of the public’s attention.
- Women in the Ukraine war * are at particular risk.
- However, the fate of the affected women is a relatively small topic in reporting on the escalating conflict in Ukraine*.
- Luba Kasova and Xanthi Scharf, experts on the role of women in the media, highlight the consequences of this case in this article.
- This article is available in German for the first time – first published by the magazine on March 20, 2022 Foreign Policy.
Irina Slavinska is in hiding in Ukraine * in a place she does not want to be named. Her voice is calm. Unfazed by the howling of sirens in the background. As production director at Radio Kultur of Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcasting company, she is usually responsible for a team of reporters, producers and editors. Now, in the war, I became the “ordinary radio announcer”.
During her coverage, Slavinska learned that her colleague Oleksandra Kovchinova was the production assistant who was murdered with Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrevsky. “Unfortunately, this is the fate that Ukrainian journalists often suffer during the war,” says Slavinska. Reporters on the ground face the impossible choice between working or fleeing with their children and parents, she said. “And then, of course, there’s the issue of safety when it comes to sexual violence.”
Women in War: Not only the victims – but also the soldiers and leaders on the front lines
Just as female reporters face dangers in war that threaten their safety, their work, and their lives, so do Ukrainian women—and yet we rarely get to know them. According to our analysis of the news monitoring database GDELT, women’s voices represent less than a quarter (23 percent) of all experts, key figures or sources cited in global digital news about the war in Ukraine. Although Ukrainian women and children make up only a small part of news stories, these stories are often emotionally compelling and therefore unforgettable, especially for readers accustomed to news stories that disproportionately portray men.
Reports about women are often shaped by traditional narratives that obscure women’s resilience and leadership qualities. “The coverage of women and girls is unfortunate,” says journalist and media expert Katya Gurchinskaya, head of the independent Ukrainian news agency Hromadske. “Most of the images we see of women are of victims, who are clearly disproportionately affected*, but there are also examples of women in leadership roles.” Women make up 16 percent of all military personnel, many of whom serve at the front. Gurchinskaya said other women are volunteers or paramedics helping on the ground and in cities, and their stories are often shared on social media.
Older women in the Ukraine war: ‘This group is completely invisible’
During war, political leaders make quick, high-stakes decisions. They rely on the information at their disposal, such as the $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine recently approved by the US Congress. The press helps ensure that such decisions are made and that humanitarian aid is targeted. When reporting from a male perspective, it can reinforce the prejudice already prevalent in male-dominated governments and multilateral institutions.
Of the more than 3 million people who had fled Ukraine * by mid-March, most of them were women and children. A large group of old people, mostly women, resided in towns and villages. This group is completely invisible and does not get much attention from the state, the non-governmental sector and the news. “The same thing happened to these people in 2014,” Gurchinskaya says.
Children and women are often the victims of war and bear the burden of rebuilding societies. Women and girls need to be protected from the increased risk of gender-based violence during war and from human traffickers who prey on vulnerable populations*. They also have reproductive health needs that require a gender and cultural response. “They urgently need expert care – sexual and reproductive healthcare, mother and child care – as well as treatment for trauma, infectious and chronic diseases,” said Anil Soni, Executive Director of the WHO Foundation. This Thursday, the World Health Organization’s fundraising appeal, which raised more than $57.5 million, faced a major funding gap. Only $8 million promised.
Putin is a danger to women in Ukraine – and the country’s media
Sexual minorities are at increased risk if Russian President Vladimir Putin * takes political control of Ukraine. Autocrats like Putin tend to undermine gender justice movements and other fringe groups, not to mention freedom of the press: Under Putin’s new censorship law, coverage of the war in Ukraine can be punished with up to 15 years in prison.
The classification of domestic violence has been lowered from a criminal offense to an administrative offense in Russia: under the new 2018 legislation, offenders can avoid imprisonment in a variety of circumstances by paying a small fine. Russia last year announced a plan to halve abortion rates, prioritizing population growth goals over a woman’s right to choose.
Women in the news world: little to see – in times of war the gap widens
The fact that it is mostly men who transmit and appear in the news applies to all countries in the world. Worldwide, only one woman out of every four people reads, hears and sees. The representation gap is larger for black and colored women, and people without bi-identities often go unnoticed in the news.
In times of war and crisis, the gender gap in reporting widens even more. Take International Women’s Day on March 8th, the thirteenth day of the Conquest. This is usually the most important day of the year in women’s reporting, when the highest representation of women is achieved. This year, according to our analysis of data from the GDELT database, women’s coverage fell 63 percent in the United States and 36 percent globally, to the lowest levels since 2017, the first year this data was collected.
During COVID-19, the proportion of women reporting and responding to crises has also decreased. In all of the countries where ACCAS conducted research, men were three to six times more represented in digital news than women. In the United States, men were four times more likely to appear in digital news than women.
Ukraine’s war in the media: Women can provide an important perspective
Gender differences are more evident in the Ukrainian war reports than in the global reports. Our preliminary analysis of GDELT data revealed that only 18 percent of votes quoted in Ukrainian news media are attributed to experts, sources or key figures. Worldwide, the rate is 23 percent.
Since the Russian invasion of Donbass and Crimea in 2014*, women have already faced escalating gender discrimination and have been disproportionately affected by the resulting social and economic crisis. However, 41 percent of Ukrainian news media workers believe that striving for gender balance in newsrooms is an unnecessary burden. More than half of female journalists in Ukraine say they have experienced sexual harassment at work.
Accurate stories of women who fought the invasion, escaped while their families were separated, sought medical and nursing care, and more are crucial to an overall portrayal of the war. It’s never too late to start writing more about Ukrainian women – particularly in Ukrainian women’s publications themselves – so that policy makers and all of us are better informed. “Often, coverage of conflicts focuses on men who lose their lives up front,” Sonny says. “We need to pay more attention to the special influences and needs of women and their children.”
Slavinska reflects on Ukrainian reporters’ ability to shine a light on war from unique angles, digging beneath the surface and finding humanity in the subtle aspects of war. Gurchinskaya highlights great untold stories of women’s courage or the neglected needs of large groups of women. There are hundreds of aspects of war waiting to be revealed and talked about, if only women could get their hands on the microphone.
Written by Luba Kasova and Xanthi Scharf
Luba Kasova he is an author Women’s missing perspectives in the news and founder of the consulting firm Addy Kassova Audience Strategy.
Xanthe Scharff She is the CEO and co-founder of the Fuller Project, a non-profit news agency dedicated to reporting on issues affecting women.
This article was first published in English in “ForeignPolicy.com” on March 20, 2022 – as part of the collaboration, it is now also available in translation for readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals. * Merkur.de is an offering from IPPEN.MEDIA.