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Clara Zetkin, we need you today

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March 17, 2011, 11:55 p.m. | Op-ed — by Lilia Ostapenko

Lilia Ostapenko

Lilia Ostapenko writes: Lack of women in top government posts highlights deep problems in administration. Most of us girls from the former Soviet Union still celebrate International Women’s Day, which occurs every March 8, but is largely unobserved in the rest of the world.

It was established by a German woman named Clara Zetkin a good 100 years ago in order to unite progressive women around the world. As time went by, the meaning of the day has somewhat changed.
Many women in Ukraine went as far as saying that they are embarrassed that they used to celebrate this day during Soviet times, and others, like me, just enjoy the ride which brings extra flowers and attention.

On this day, husbands are supposed to wake up early, get flowers for their wives and daughters, and treat them in other special ways. The concept is somewhat similar to the Mother’s Day in the United States, when moms are shown appreciation, such as receiving their breakfast in bed.

I celebrate both March 8 and Mother’s Day, as it gives me an extra opportunity to receive a nice bouquet of roses, some chocolates and extra kisses from my American husband, who now is perfectly aware of this other special day from my childhood’s history.

This year, International Women’s Day was again celebrated rather traditionally in Ukraine. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko gave her usual witty greeting, saying that while men carry all the world’s troubles on their shoulders, we, women, are then bound to carry the men.

President Viktor Yanukovych issued his greetings as well, in his usual clumsy way, which I did not understand much, except that it presented me with a vivid image of his wife, Lyudmila, secluded somewhere in Donetsk.

Many women in Ukraine went as far as saying that they are embarrassed that they used to celebrate this day during Soviet times, and others, like me, just enjoy the ride which brings extra flowers and attention.

Leaving the celebration behind, a more serious question about the role of a woman in modern Ukrainian society comes to mind. Traditionally, as part of her Soviet heritage, Ukrainian woman always carried a hammer and a sickle alongside her man, picked up a rifle during war time, and laid train rails and asphalt, if needed, being an equal partner in every aspect of life.
By no means do I question men’s ability to govern the country, but some participation from us women, would not hurt either.

Things seemed to change with our new Ukrainian government, including a role played by the first lady. Unlike the previous first lady, Kateryna Yushchenko, who made us all proud of her social initiatives, pleasant demeanor and simply good sense of style, the current first lady became absolutely invisible after the election of her husband.

We still remember her infamous speech during the 2004 Orange Revolution about poisoned American oranges and revolutionaries with meningitis.

Unfortunately, our troubles do not stop with the first lady’s seclusion. There are simply no women in the current Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. At the government’s official website at http://www.kmu.gov.ua, you will see a lot of well dressed and rather serious looking men, but not a single woman.

If we carefully rake through all the three branches of power in Ukraine, we will obviously find a few women - the ombudsman Nina Karpachova, who has been in office since President Leonid Kuchma’s times, Raisa Bohatyriova, chair of the National Security Council, who probably lost the current president’s favor because of her participation in the previous Orange government of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.


And there is also Hanna Herman, a loyal Sancho Panza of Viktor Yanukovych, but all she got after the election was a position as deputy head of the Presidential Administration. However, none of these women has a seat in the Cabinet.
The first lady may simply prefer to be invisible behind her big and important husband, but it does not mean that the rest of Ukrainian women should remain as well in his shadow until better times come.

It is not that Ukraine does not have strong female politicians. To name a few, we have Oleksandra Kuzhel, who is not afraid to openly talk about corruption in Ukraine and its negative impact on Ukrainian business and investment. Not only she was removed from the government, but her agency was permanently closed, so that she would never return.

And then we have Tymoshenko, who is being prosecuted under selective justice principles by the Ukrainian legal system. March 8 or not, some Ukrainian men have stopped acting like gentlemen around her. With so few women in the government, the role of a female in Ukraine looks rather bleak.

By no means do I question men’s ability to govern the country, but some participation from us women, would not hurt either.

When I was a student in the United States, one of my professors told me that it is wonderful that women in Ukraine do not wear headscarves. Fortunately, todaywe do not. Folk stories emphasize the strong role Ukrainian women have always played in supporting their families and keeping it together.

Today, manyUkrainian womencare for their families by slaving overseas as nannies and caretakers, in order to send money home.

Ukrainian girls still “kick ass,” as in theradicalactions of the Ukrainian “Femen” movement, who draw society’s attention to important issues by appearing topless at various public places and carrying posters with questions for the government authorities.

But what can a few brave girls do against all those important men in the government?

In addition to lack of participation in the government, we also have received derogatory remarks from the president, asat the Davos Forum.

Well, the first lady may simply prefer to be invisible behind her big and important husband, but it does not mean that the rest of Ukrainian women should remain as well in his shadow until better times come.


Lilia Ostapenko, a Ukrainian-American attorney in the Washington, D.C., area can be reached at liliaostapenko@yahoo.com
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Anonymous March 18, 2011, 4:44 p.m.    

But what can a few brave girls do against all those important men in the government?

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