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Commentary , World

Ukrainian Women on the Front Lines but Not in the Headlines

by Xanthe Scharff March 20, 2022

Iryna Slavinska shelters underground in Ukraine at a location she cannot disclose. Her voice sounds steady, undeterred by the wail of sirens in the background. An executive producer for Radio Culture at Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcasting company, she is normally responsible for a team of reporters, producers, and editors. Now, in war, she has become “an ordinary radio presenter.”

While reporting, Slavinska learned that her colleague Oleksandra Kuvshynova was the fixer killed alongside Fox News cameraperson Pierre Zakrzewski. “Unfortunately, this happens a lot to Ukrainian women journalists in war,” Slavinska said. Women reporters on the ground face the impossible trade-off of working or fleeing with their children and parents, she said. “And then, of course, there’s the issue of security in terms of sexual violence.”

Just as women reporters face unique barriers to safety, work, and life amid war, so do Ukrainian women—yet we rarely get their story. Women’s voices constitute less than a quarter (23 percent) of the total experts, protagonists, or sources quoted in global digital news about the war in Ukraine, according to our analysis of the GDELT news monitoring database. Although Ukrainian women and children feature in a fraction of stories, these stories are often emotionally engaging and therefore more memorable, especially to readers who are accustomed to news that disproportionately features and sources men.

Coverage of women is also often skewed toward traditional narratives that obscure women’s resilience and leadership. “Reporting on women and girls is accidental,” said journalist and media expert Katya Gorchinskaya, who formerly ran the independent Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske. “Most images of women we see are those of victims, who are disproportionately affected, of course, but there are examples of leadership.” Women form 16 percent of total military personnel, many of whom are serving on the front lines. Other women are volunteers or medics helping on the ground and in cities, whose stories are mainly told on social media, according to Gorchinskaya.

During war, policymakers make high-stakes decisions quickly with whatever information is at hand, like the recent approval by U.S. Congress of $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Journalism helps inform such decisions and how humanitarian aid is targeted. When reporting is framed by a male perspective, it can magnify the bias that already exists within government and multilateral institutions that are dominated by male leadership.

Of the more than 3 million refugees that have fled Ukraine, the majority are women and children. “There is a significant cohort of elderly people, most of whom are women, who are staying put in cities and villages. This group is completely invisible and neglected by the state, the nongovernmental sector, and by news. The same happened to these people in 2014,” Gorchinskaya said.

Women and children often bear the brunt of war and carry the burden of recovery in communities. Women and girls need protection from the heightened risk of gender-based violence during war and traffickers who prey on vulnerable populations. They also have reproductive health needs that require a gender-sensitive and culturally aware response. “They urgently require specialized care—sexual, reproductive, maternal, and child health care—as well as treatment for trauma, infectious disease, and chronic conditions,” said Anil Soni, CEO of the World Health Organization (WHO) Foundation. As of Thursday, the WHO’s appeal for $57.5 million faced a large funding gap, with $8 million committed.

Gender minorities are at increased risk of harm if Russian President Vladimir Putin gains political control over Ukraine. Autocrats like Putin tend to undermine movements for gender equity and other marginalized groups, not to mention freedom of the press. (Under Putin’s new censorship law, reporting on the war in Ukraine carries a potential prison term of up to 15 years.) Domestic violence in Russia was reclassified from a criminal to an administrative offense: Under new 2018 legislation, in a wide array of circumstances, abusers can avoid jail time by paying a small fine. Last year, Russia announced a plan to reduce abortion rates by half, putting population growth goals above women’s right to choose.

The predominance of men reporting on and featuring in news is a fact that is true in countries around the world, where globally only 1 in 4 of the people you read, hear, and see is a woman. For black women and women of color the representation gap is far wider, and people with nonbinary identities are often overlooked in the news.

During war and crisis, the gender gap in coverage widens further. Take International Women’s Day on March 8, day 13 of the invasion. Typically, this is the most important day of the year for coverage focused on women and generates the highest levels of coverage. This year, the coverage of women dropped by 63 percent in the United States and 36 percent globally to its lowest level since 2017, the first year this data was collected, according to our original analysis using data from the GDELT database.

During COVID-19, women’s share of voice shrunk as well amid crisis reporting and responses. In all the countries where AKAS conducted research, women were outnumbered by men by three to six times in digital news. In the United States, men appeared in digital news four times more often than women.

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