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Wednesday, 11 December
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society

Ukraine fights gender inequality, but women still suffer from an opportunity gap - UN Assistant Secretary-General

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger on women rights, corruption and life in Eastern Ukraine

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger on women rights, corruption and life in Eastern Ukraine Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP in Ukraine

On her first visit to Ukraine, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS, discussed with government officials the country’s pro-reform environment and its implications for anti-corruption, human rights, climate action and recovery in the east.

- Good morning, Ms. Spoljaric Egger! Is this your first time in Ukraine?

- Yes, it’s my first time here, but it isn’t my first mission to the region. After working as a diplomat with the Swiss government, I joined UNDP in October last year. I’ve so far visited half of UNDP’s country programmes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This is our largest in the region. I had a chance to sit down and discuss the country’s challenges and opportunities with key partners. I also visited eastern Ukraine and was able to see the amazing work our team is doing there. It was very impressive.

- What would you say are the main challenges that Ukraine faces?

- The armed conflict is definitely the biggest challenge for Ukraine. It has to be settled before we can truly ensure full economic growth and sustainability. We cannot underestimate the importance of governance: strengthening institutions, ensuring the division through a system of checks and balances, advancing transparency and fighting corruption are important means to achieve good development results. There have been some improvements over the last few years, but Ukraine still has some way to go. In the end, this is about making sure everyone benefits and participates in the country’s growth: women, vulnerable groups, people living in remote areas…

- President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree making the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the government’s highest priority. Where do we stand now, and what are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the next 10 years?

- It’s an incredibly important step because it will drive momentum to achieve the SDGs in Ukraine. The government should take the lead in communicating very strongly around Agenda 2030. It will create even more movement and energy around the Goals. I have just mentioned the inclusion of all groups and managing the development process in a balanced way. The country also needs to develop markets and digitally transform to catch up with some of the world’s most dynamic economies.

- Your visit here involves some meetings with Ukrainian senior officials. What are the prospects for cooperation with the new government?

- We’re getting strong signals from the government regarding its will for reform and UNDP is ready to support those efforts. I had very focused discussions with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, and with the first deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk. There’s strong commitment and clear willingness to tackle issues like women’s inclusion, climate change and creating the jobs of the future. These are all important entry points for UNDP.

Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP in Ukraine

- You said the armed conflict in the east is the biggest challenge for Ukraine. What is the role of UNDP and the UN in helping Ukraine recover from the conflict?

- UNDP represents the key development pillar of the United Nations. It is crucial – especially in eastern Ukraine where I spent two days – to upgrade the local infrastructure. We have to improve access to health and education, while promoting entrepreneurship and creating jobs for the people. I visited two centres that provide social and administrative services to local citizens, I visited hospitals that have been rehabilitated, I saw how many people can be reached and how many lives can be improved through our projects. UNDP has supported about 700 start-ups, created over 3,000 jobs and improved access to public services for more than 170,000 people. For instance, we’re now promoting a bus system that will connect remote communities to urban centres. It’s one of the biggest programmes we’ve undertaken. It’s a model of cooperation not only with local groups, but also with UNDP’s sister agencies in the UN system. In addition, UNDP works closely with the European Investment Bank. UNDP prepares people for peace and long-term development when conflict ends. We make sure populations are resilient enough to continue to grow and invest in spite of potential violence. In turn, stronger societies are less likely to relapse into conflict.

- Ukraine has intensified its efforts to tackle corruption in recent years. How is the situation looking and how has UNDP been supporting these efforts?

- It’s a complex issue. The key to strengthening transparency is the separation of powers. It’s close to impossible to combat corruption without an independent judiciary, an independent parliament, and strong political will from the executive. UNDP has used digital tools to help achieve that. For instance, UNDP helped the government introduce an online system of disclosure, through which over a million public officials have publicly declared their assets. The system puts pressure on officials to act lawfully. People looked at the system before voting which is a huge step forward! Still, there is a lot of work ahead to tackle corruption, and that’s when UNDP works to support the judiciary branch comes in. UNDP os also working with cities and city administrations to assess corruption risks. You have to take it step by step, while working at all levels: from the application of international conventions down to the municipal level.

- Despite some improvement, the share of women in decision-making roles in Ukraine is still way below 50 percent. Are quotas enough to increase women’s participation in politics, or do other measures need to be taken?

- On political participation, the picture is encouraging. In July 2019, the number of parliamentary seats held by women almost doubled, from 12 percent in the 2014 elections to around 21 percent now. Still, while important, quotas on their own aren’t enough to ensure adequate levels of representation for women. Besides, women could represent half of the parliament, but societal and normative changes don’t naturally follow.

When we look at other indicators, there’s a lot of progress to be done. Women are paid on average only 80 percent of men’s salaries for the same job. Fewer working-age women have jobs – 55 percent versus 69 percent for men.

In addition, this region used to be known for women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The proportion of women working in these sectors has declined over the past 20 years. Girls are three times less likely than boys to go into one of the STEM professions. Look at engineering: while in 2010 and 2011 nearly 27 percent of engineering degree students were women, today that number is down to 20 percent.

That’s a huge problem because STEM is where a lot of jobs are being created. I, therefore, want to encourage women to go into sectors and subjects that promise well-paid jobs and career opportunities.

Another area where progress is particularly lacking is ending gender-based violence. Laws have to be in place to ensure nobody abuses women and children with impunity. For instance, one in five women in Ukraine between 15-49 has experienced at least one form of physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

These issues all require changing incentives.

Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP in Ukraine

- Based on your experience, what could such incentives involve?

- You need quotas not only in parliament but also in universities; you need quotas or special measures to promote women in senior management positions. Universities have to introduce programmes to target women, training them in specific sectors. You have to provide monetary incentives for women to start their own businesses. UNDP has many local programmes that train women so they can start their own businesses.

- UNDP recently launched an accelerator lab in Ukraine. What are the lab’s goals, and will it cooperate with other such labs across the globe?

- UNDP has launched 60 such accelerator labs around the world. The accelerator labs are introducing innovation and technology into development to tackle complex issues that don’t have a single solution – for instance, you can’t tackle climate change without tackling equality and social inclusion. In Ukraine, you have a big problem with smog. You know the smog comes, among other things, from the burning of crop waste in the county. That means promoting rural development, while at the same time introducing clean air measures in cities. These are the kinds of things that the labs are going to help with, bringing together lots of different organizations that can offer part of the solution to scale and accelerate development.

- How would you recommend Ukraine raise awareness of crucial issues like climate change? I know that on 29 November there’ll be another climate strike.

- It’s unprecedented to see young people putting pressure on policymakers. I encourage young people to set concrete demands and to hold officials to account. Governments need to invest in greening the economy while at the same time reducing inequality. There’s also an opportunity here for governments to change their laws and to divest from fossil fuels, which Ukraine is taking important steps to do.

- Any other final observations or recommendations?

- We don’t normally make recommendations as such. What we do, however, is work very closely with the government, making sure that the government brings the right set of people to help them advance sustainable development goals. We also bring relevant international expertise and technical advice. UNDP has 17,000 people working across the globe in close to 170 country offices. We look forward to continue advancing our collaboration here in Ukraine for the benefit of the country’s people.

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