Photo: © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

Gender, Conflict and Ukraine | Plus, a Preview of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women Conference

I caught up with Michelle Milford-Morse on International Women’s Day and as the war in Ukraine entered its second week.

Michelle Milford-Morse is the United Nations Foundation’s Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy. I wanted to speak with her to both better understand gender dynamics in armed conflict and how these dynamics are playing out today in Ukraine.

Also, we spoke about a week before the Commission on the Status of Women kicked off at UN headquarters in New York. The Commission on the Status of Women is the second-largest annual gathering at the UN and I was keen to learn from Michelle Milford-Morse what to expect from this meeting and how, if at all, the war in Ukraine will impact CSW this year.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Does Gender Play a Role in Russia’s War on Ukraine?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:02:06] Conflict is gendered. Men are largely expected to take up arms and defend their country or to be part of an invasion force. Women are largely expected to flee from conflict and to take children and the elderly and vulnerable with them, and both are very, very dangerous, but not in the same ways. For women, rates of domestic violence, early enforced child marriage, human trafficking, these things spike during times of conflict. Maternal mortality also rises. Just two years ago, the UN verified 2500 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in 18 countries, committed mostly against girls and women. So, flight comes with additional risks and trauma, too. There’s an estimated one in five female refugees living in humanitarian settings that have experienced sexual violence and its consequences, and along with that trauma, stigma, poverty, and unwanted pregnancy, too. And that’s one in five female refugees. Consider that more than half of the planet’s 80 million displaced people are women and children so that the dangers are overwhelming, and we know that because our UN colleagues are on the ground responding to this and collecting the data about it.

How is maternal health and mortality affected by war and conflict?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:24] What do we know specifically about maternal health and conflict?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:03:30] What happens with maternal health is that regular health services are interrupted, which means that women can’t seek both the kind of prenatal and labor and delivery care that you would expect to have not during a conflict. And let’s just situate that in the larger context. Maternal mortality is still a global problem all over the world. Childbirth is not the safe endeavor that we want it to be for far too many women, but conflict throws an additional set of challenges in the mix, and I’m sure you’ve all seen some of the photos and videos and the headlines about women in Ukraine right now giving birth in subway stations. It is truly horrifying.

What is the link between political violence and violence against women?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:16] Is there a definitive, empirically proven link between political violence and domestic gender-based violence?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:04:27] There is, there is. I am really glad to see that increasingly that link is being made to be specific. Sexism is strategic for the world’s autocrats. The best way to torpedo democracy is to make sure that women aren’t included in it, to make sure that pluralism doesn’t thrive, to make sure that women are not at the negotiating table. These things are definitely linked, and it may seem like the broader point is not the point we need to be making now that we are seeing these horrifying images and stories coming out of Ukraine, but I think it is the right time to make that point. And Mark, I’d be kind of delighted to talk a little bit about what we’re seeing specifically in Ukraine and how it links to this broader context of women, peace, and security.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:21] Yeah, I mean that’s where I was going. We are now, as I said, two weeks into the conflict in Ukraine. What are you seeing in terms of its impact on gender equality, and more broadly how this conflict is uniquely impacting women?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:05:41] Well, it’s interesting because the quality, I think, and the amount of information coming out of Ukraine is different than what we’ve seen previously, we’re seeing a range of both expected and unexpected gender roles. I mean, as I noted, you’re seeing videos of women fleeing with children but you’re also seeing them at the front lines and sometimes with their partners. And then we’ve seen fathers taking their kids to safety and then going back to defend their country. This highlights, I think, a couple of things for me. First, our gender norms are not fixed. All this stuff about who takes care of children and who runs companies, we made all that up and we can knock it down. This stuff is not fixed. But second, it matters a lot who gets to make the decisions. Men have largely absorbed the responsibility of waging war and the privilege of negotiating, keeping, and building peace. Men are usually the authors of war. Women are usually the weapons of war and its social and economic casualties. And I bring this up because I don’t want us to talk about girls and women only as the vulnerable subjects of war, but also as the agents of change that we need because peace and security is women’s work too. And probably our listeners might remember that landmark year, the year 2000, when the Security Council passed the security resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, and set new markers for the degree to which women would be engaged in peace building, peacekeeping and in general, peace and security work. But Mark, we have a long way to go. I mean, I went and looked for some data yesterday, and I found that in 2020 women represented only 23% of delegations in UN supported peace processes. So, we have a long way to go but the point is we need women to take their rightful place at the negotiating table, so we have different outcomes and different voices at that table.

How are gender and gender roles affecting Ukraine’s response to Russia’s sustained attacks?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:42] Specifically to the conflict in Ukraine, are there any sort of anecdotes you’ve heard or stories you could share that are illustrative of gender dynamics at play in this conflict? You mentioned earlier women being on the frontline. I interviewed a journalist a couple of weeks ago who was at the Polish border and was, you know, accompanying a family, fleeing. The men were forced to stay behind, the women and the children were allowed to flee as refugees. Are there any sort of anecdotes or stories like that that have sort of resonated with you?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:08:29] Mark, yesterday, I saw some footage of a man and a woman getting married at the front lines, and I just thought, first of all, the resilience of that was astounding to me. Getting married is kind of hope manifest in a tradition. And I thought that was so interesting to see that and so unexpected. And at the same time, I think like everybody, I’ve been watching videos and reading stories about the border and about women trying to make a decision in this moment in time, ‘do I hand my child off to a stranger at this border and go back and fight for my country? Or do I try to cross the border with my child and take care of my child?’ I just think we’ve put people in the most impossible situation. But I do think it’s just interesting that when you get a closer look and you’re able to observe how people are responding to this crisis, that you see that gender doesn’t show up always in the same way for all people. And it shouldn’t actually.

How will women in Ukraine be affected by Russia’s tactics? Is sexual violence being used as a weapon in Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:42] So it seems as we are entering week two of this conflict that a tactic at least used by the Russian forces will be to lay siege to cities and also to bomb civilian infrastructure, including, as we’ve seen as the World Health Organization has reported, medical infrastructure. You know, we’ve seen this tactic before, most recently in Syria laying siege to a civilian population. Obviously, this will cause hardship and deprivation to everyone under siege. Is there something unique that women may experience during this time as opposed to men?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:10:30] Well, we talked a little bit about the maternal mortality and how a situation that is not ideal in many countries in the world crumbles further during conflict. But it’s also important to say that women globally make up between 70 to 90 percent of our frontline health care workers. We know that and that’s been clarified for us dramatically because we are now in year two of the pandemic. So, any time health infrastructure is affected like that, you know that there are women on the frontlines who are serving as nurses, doctors, midwives, and other health care professionals that are going to be dramatically affected by that. At the same time, I mentioned that sexual violence against women spikes during times of conflict. I think it’s important to highlight that specific and egregious violation of human rights. The UN tracks that, the special representative for the use of sexual violence in conflict has warned that there are reports of the use of sexual violence happening in Ukraine. And so as difficult as this is to talk about, as difficult as it is to hear, I think it’s important that we are aware that rape is used as a weapon of war and that women endure that horrific violation of their safety and their rights. And that is a unique way in which conflict can be gendered and particularly traumatic.

How can we reduce the amount of violence against women in conflict?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:10] What can be done to reverse some of the harmful trends that you described? I mean, other than reducing war, the frequency of war, the harm of war, are there some like deliberate steps both, you know, belligerents in conflicts or the international community more broadly can take to reverse some of the harmful trends that you discussed at the top of this conversation in terms of the impact of conflict and war on gender equality?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:12:48] Well, obviously, we want an immediate total complete cease fire. Like everyone, I’m heartbroken and worried. It’s just deeply, deeply trying. I’m aware of the relative comfort from which I get to say these things and yet our human family is suffering terribly there and frankly, in other conflicts in the world right now as well. But Mark, I think it goes back to that point that women don’t get to make decisions. They don’t get to write the story. When war is waged, how it is waged, the weapons that are used against women, specifically, women don’t get to make the decisions about that. And so right now, if overwhelmingly armed conflict is waged by men, men are both the negotiators for the end of conflict, long term peace negotiations are decided by men, then we are probably going to keep repeating the same cycle. And that’s really a pity because we have some pretty good data, actually, that when women are involved in peacekeeping that those agreements last longer, they endure longer. To me, making sure that everybody around the table gets to make decisions about our future is obviously the right thing to do but also if we want longer peace, then it’s imperative that we do that. So that is the long-term goal inclusion and belonging for all people.

What is the Commission on the Status of Women?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:30] So on the topic of sitting around a table making a decision, while I have your time, I also want to have you discuss a little bit about the Commission on the Status of Women, which is upcoming at the United Nations in March. This is after the annual UN General Assembly in September. The CSW, the Commission on the Status of Women is the largest diplomatic gathering at the United Nations each year. It was not obviously supposed to be about the war in Ukraine, but I’m interested in getting your perspective, your take, on both how might the conflict in Ukraine impact discussions, if at all, at CSW? And more broadly, what you’ll be looking towards at CSW this year?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:15:23] Well, I love CSW. It’s really my favorite time of the year because it’s the time of year where governments from all over the world show up at the UN for two weeks to agree yet again that women are people. Technically it is the biggest global policymaking body dedicated exclusively to promoting gender equality and UN Women is the Secretariat of CSW so my heroic colleagues over there facing a fortnight of very little sleep. And this two weeks supports all aspects of the commission’s work and it’s a really important moment for civil society engagement and for member state negotiation on issues related to gender equality. You know, in my career, it’s also been vexed. I’ve seen CSW canceled because of blizzards, because of a pandemic and this year it’ll operate under the shadow of war, as you say. So, this year, CSW is also going to take up a critical, urgent, and complicated topic: the topic of climate justice and the role that girls and women need to play in adaptation and mitigation and responding to our planetary crisis. The specter of oil has obviously and rightly been raised in the articles and in discussion about the war in Ukraine. And that is because our reliance on oil is related to climate change and our reliance on oil is related to conflict. And so, it might be tempting to see these things as separate—gender equality, democracy, climate change, peace, and security—but in fact, they are all related, and I expect all of those things to be surfaced, debated, and discussed at length for the two weeks of the CSW, Mark.

What will the Commission on the Status of Women focus on this year?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:22] Are there any sort of specific outcomes you’ll be looking towards at CSW?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:17:27] Yeah, I will, for sure. The first thing is that the CSW this year is going to undertake, in addition to the climate justice discussion, it’s going to take up this approach to working. CSW, I think, is the moment during the year that probably benefits the most from vibrant participation of civil society. And so, member states and civil society actors are going to take up this question of how civil society engages in the UN. Now, that may sound super technical and even a little bit boring, but I’m here to tell you, deciding who gets to be in the room, who gets to be part of the negotiations, it’s critical, it’s a form of democracy, and it should be important to anyone who cares about equality. The other thing, Mark, is that the CSW produces some agreed conclusions. They start with a zero draft. I think that zero draft initially was about seven pages. The latest version, I think it’s 57 pages and the member states are going to hash out all kinds of things related to gender equality and to climate justice. I am keen to see where they land on this issue of climate justice. One of the reasons why the CSW might be vexed is because member states have not agreed that there is a climate crisis; they haven’t agreed that the climate crisis is related to security; and member states have backtracked dramatically, in fact, on gender equality. It was long ago that 189 governments agreed to the platform of action in Beijing in 1995. It’s even been a long time since governments agreed on the Sustainable Development Agenda and SDG 5. We have seen a rise in sexism, misogyny, nationalist leaders that are that are brazenly, frankly, brazenly patriarchal, and misogynistic. And so it is with that backdrop that these governments are going to debate two of the most contentious issues of our time: climate change and gender equality. And so, Mark, to answer your question, I’m going to be watching those negotiations very, very carefully to see whereas a world we land, because for my money, the future of humanity is at stake here.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:38] Well, can I ask, what are the realms of possibility in terms of where these negotiations land? Like what are the range of outcomes? I mean, I’ve been following the United Nations closely enough for many years that documents like the outcome document that you described, go through this painful process of consensus negotiation where individual words are debated, deleted, added, inserted. Oftentimes civil society measures success of the outcome document based upon whether or not certain words, certain concepts are embraced. You know, is there a word or a concept that you would expect to be embraced if this were to be a successful and maximally ambitious outcome at CSW?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:20:33] Well, Mark, yeah, this is old hat for you. You know that in fact, they’re going to debate every single word and every single term. I think it’s hard to say and here’s why: the realm of bodily autonomy and gender equality—What makes a family? What is gender identity? —these things are already hotly debated by member states, even though we have international agreements and a general consensus on gender equality. Then you throw in this kind of hotly debated issue around climate justice—Who’s going to be the most affected? Who’s responsible for stopping it? —and so to be honest, I mean, I think this is going to be a bit of a wild ride to see where we go. Now, what do I want? I want all countries to come to the table and recommit to gender equality. And as part of that, I want them to recommit to the idea that the planet is in fact in peril. Our ability to live on this planet is in peril. The science is clear. As we figure out what to do now, I want women at the table to determine national contributions to limiting carbon. I want them at the table to decide on how we’re going to deal with disaster and destruction from climate change. Who’s going to be affected by that? How are we going to adapt? I want women at the table, but I think it’s going to be a wild ride, Mark. I’m not sure. I think a lot of us are unsure what to expect.

How will the ongoing conflict in Ukraine affect the Commission on the Status of Women?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:00] And lastly, is there any sort of way that you see the crisis, the conflict in Ukraine impacting diplomacy around this outcome document? I mean, the CSW meeting will come just a few weeks after this historic General Assembly vote in which 141, I think, countries went on the record condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Does a vote like that have any impact on the diplomatic dynamics of negotiating a document on climate justice and gender?

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:22:39] Well, sadly, no. I mean…

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:42] I don’t think so either. I’m just curious.

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:22:46] Well, I mean, I think that moment in the UN, by the way, was astounding and glorious for me. I rewatched the calling of the vote several times because that’s how it should happen. That’s how it should happen. All those countries in one room debating and discussing and voting, that’s how it should happen. It just doesn’t. It takes a war to get something like that to happen. Gender equality never gets a moment like that, even though certainly the fate of the world depends on it. And it should. So no, I don’t expect something like that. But what I do expect is that gender equality, like climate and like peace and security, it depends on the solidarity and willingness of all of us to confront those issues. I kind of roll my eyes when people say women’s issues, because usually what follows is things like the health and childcare and reproductive health. Those are human issues, but so are climate change, so is peace and security, and economic growth, and global health, and pandemic preparedness. Those are all women’s issues. I would love to see global solidarity around that idea. I mean, let’s just be blunt about it: trying to achieve more peace and prosperity for the world without women’s meaningful equality and inclusion is like trying to make guacamole without an avocado. I mean, it’s impossible. And I want there to be more both awareness of that, and I want more solidarity around that idea.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:25] Well, Michelle, thank you so much for your time.

Michelle Milford-Morse [00:24:28] Thank you, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg  [00:24:32] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Michelle Milford-Morse. We recorded our conversation live on Twitter spaces, and she did take time to answer some questions for the audience. If you ever want to participate in one of these live recordings, please just follow me on Twitter. I host them regularly and often give audience the opportunity to ask questions, nearly always do unless there’s some sort of time consideration. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!