Resistance comes in many forms ‒ sometimes it is just about getting on with daily life


Oksana Kisselyova, NIRAS Team Leader of the EU4Gender Equality Reform Helpdesk, an EU-funded project.

A Ukrainian gender equality expert working with NIRAS, Oksana Kisselyova offers a perspective on the war and women's role in peace and security in her home country.

As a Ukrainian national currently displaced to Sweden and like many of her fellow citizens, Oksana Kisselyova’s life has been thoroughly upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And yet, the gender equality expert sees a silver lining in the tragic events of recent weeks as people have come together to fight – both literally and figuratively – a common enemy. Women stand beside men on the battle lines and behind the scenes, both inside and outside of Ukraine, as volunteers in humanitarian efforts and activists to end the war.  

“The most positive thing is the consolidation of society, both women and men together in this resistance to the war,” Oksana says. “Also the self-organisation of people. We are a free people. We immediately self-organise and this is the benefit of civil society. We build these horizontal chains, everyone make an effort to resist in the place where he/she is now – to provide humanitarian assistance, disseminate information, attract attention of international community, fundraise and create networks  – we all do what we can.”

128 (1)
Oksana (far left) at presentation of gender-responsive budgeting work to line ministries in Ukraine

With more than 25 years’ experience in gender mainstreaming, Oksana has been working with NIRAS since 2016. She was an expert on, and then leader of, the team implementing Sida’s Gender-Responsive Budgeting (GRB) project in Ukraine that ran for seven years and ended in 2020. Today she heads up the EU4Gender Equality Reform Helpdesk, a project funded by the European Union that provides demand-driven support to governments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on mainstreaming gender in new laws, strategies, programmes and documents. The NIRAS-led team also offers the service to EU delegations in these countries as well as Belarus, where it currently does not work with the government.

The first year of the project was marred by COVID and instability in many of the beneficiary countries so the team has mostly supported the EU delegations but has done a lot of planning around policy reforms from a gender-sensitive perspective, which it will roll out with governments along with needs-based assessments and the development of joint engagement plans. The team has provided  10 support actions for the Eastern Neighbourhood governments and 28 support actions for EUDs and carried out several trainings on gender-responsive governance and recently hosted a forum for civil society organisations to involve them in the reform process.

More than 12 million

Ukrainians have fled their home as a result of the war

More than 4 million

refugees have escaped the invasion

90 %

of refugees and IDPs are women and children

Work as a form of resistance

In addition to her role as Team Leader overseeing a staff of 13, Oksana is the focal point for Ukraine – each country has its own focal point usually working in that country  – and she is supported by four Ukrainian experts all of whom are currently working remotely in different parts of the country or outside its borders as refugees like Oksana.

It might seem strange for those of us watching events unfold in Ukraine from afar to imagine that in many respects life is going on. People are still going to work and for Oksana and her team, this is no different. Of course, the war in Ukraine has eclipsed almost all other issues, but Oksana has been amazed to see that a substantial number of the gender focal points in ministries who participated in earlier trainings are ready to attend the next sessions. For example, the gender-responsive governance training planned shortly for Azerbaijan will be provided by Ukrainians who have excellent knowledge in this field.

“When we continue our regular daily activities, it’s like a form of resistance because we would like that our institutions still work. In spite of all these challenges and the bombing of our cities, it shows the strength of the Ukrainian people and our government,” Oksana remarks.

For her personally, work has also been one way of coping. “You throw yourself into the work of the project and keep it going … We have regular team calls and the colleagues have been extremely supportive,” she says.

Reorienting priorities and responding to urgent needs

Ukraine is facing immense challenges as a result of the war, but as is always the case with violent conflict, women and children face the biggest risks. Over 12 million people, about one-third of the population, have left their homes. Of the 4.1 million [1] who have fled abroad to date, 90% are women and children who are vulnerable to trafficking and sexual violence in times of crisis.

Oksana and her team believe the EU4Gender Reform Helpdesk has a role to play in addressing this and other gender-related challenges triggered by Russia’s invasion.

“I think we are in a good position to provide support to the government according to UN 1325 Resolution [that reaffirms the important role of women in the conflict prevention and resolution, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction].

For example, we could provide gender-sensitive services to those involved in decision-making around the war, like working with government to produce and disseminate information campaigns on trafficking and risk of sexual violence, increase civil servants’ capacity to conduct rapid-needs assessment for IDPs [internally displaced persons] and advise on how to reorient ministerial priorities to address these new challenges. And of course we can respond to direct urgent needs expressed by the State Commissioner for Gender Equality or from other ministries,” Oksana explains.


The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Framework is the key international mechanism for prioritising and protecting the rights of women affected by conflict. The Framework recognises the impact that conflict has on women and that women can be powerful agents of change.

Starting with UN Resolution 1325 in 2000, the eight WPS Security Council resolutions have established an architecture that works to define how the Council considers the elements of the WPS agenda in its daily work.

Ukraine: on the front line of gender equality

Ukraine is already quite advanced in terms of gender mainstreaming in reforms, and there is a keen interest to continue improving. The Helpdesk provides assistance to the National Agency of Civil Service of Ukraine to survey government officials of all ministries  regarding the gender equality situation in their departments.  880 responses were received in Ukraine  and the responses continue to come in as people return to work. Legislation in this area is well developed, and the Government has a lot of normative acts on gender mainstreaming, for example on gender impact assessments of reforms or gender audits of governments institutions. Women represent almost 21% of the Parliament and more than 70% of all civil servants are female, although they occupy only 27 % positions of senior civil servants. And, while there is still limited representation at the top levels of decision-making, women hold senior government positions such as First Deputy Prime Minister - Minister of Economy of Ukraine, Deputy Prime Minister - Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine - Minister of Social Policy of Ukraine and Minister for Veterans' Affairs of Ukraine

Oksana is proud of her country’s efforts in gender equality: “We [Ukraine] are going very deeply already, it is not just general provisions. Seven years of the Sida Gender-Responsive Budgeting project that NIRAS implemented brought a lot of changes to the normative base that is connected to national and local budgets. The Ministry of Finance still supports the activity, they still produce instructions for key spending units on how to mainstream gender in budget requests, provide gender budget statements along with the Law on the National Budget, and require ministries and other institutions to conduct gender analyses of budget programmes.  In 2020, an Inter-Ministerial Council on Gender Equality was established under the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. When this mechanism was established, gender equality policy was considered as a cross-cutting issue among all ministries. All information from the Deputy PM’s office is disseminated across the entire government and every ministry must report back to the Deputy PM on progress.” This raises status of gender equality policy to the highest level of decision making.

Post2 Drawing

“Women are not only victims they are taking an active part in resistance both in the military force and as volunteers in humanitarian resistance. They are connected with partners, angels and volunteers from other countries and providing targeted support, be it in the form of humanitarian resistance, disseminating information, raising funds and recruiting support for Ukraine.”

Women, peace and security

The war has shone a bright spotlight on women’s role in the military where they represent about 15% of troops, well above the national average in most countries, and are also involved in the territorial defence. Women are highly visible in the resistance and Oksana notes this has had a positive knock on effect in terms of language where the media no longer refer solely to the male word for defender (защитник) but couples it with its female counterpart (защитница).

“We are seeing more women-friendly language in the media coverage,” she says. “Journalists are using terms and a way of speaking where you can actually see the change in mentality. We as gender experts have been speaking about this for many years and lobbied normative changes It more than just language, which has become inclusive, it’s about perceptions.”

In Oksana’s opinion, the heroism of men’s role in war remains, however, a controversial issue that cannot be ignored. With women being allowed to flee and men being forced to remain behind to defend their country, traditional roles and expectations are reinforced. Yet, even as IDPs or refugees, women are shouldering their share of the effort.

“Women are not only victims they are taking an active part in resistance both in the military force and as volunteers in humanitarian resistance. They are connected with partners, angels and volunteers from other countries and providing targeted support, be it in the form of humanitarian resistance, disseminating information, raising funds and recruiting support for Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, there is one area where Oksana believes women need to play a great role and that is peace negotiations. Right now, there do not appear to be any women visible in the discussions.

“It’s a real pity because if women were more involved, they could present more this humanitarian side of war, to speak more about victims, the impact on civilians, women, children and elderly people. Perhaps it would have more impact and make negotiations more productive. But who knows?” she asks herself.

Indeed. Who knows? Who knows how much longer this war will continue? Who knows where it will lead? We can only hope it ends soon and Ukraine can get back to the business of strengthening its democratic institutions and building a society where women and men have an equal share in decision-making but also the services government provides.