Political participation of women with disabilities in Ukraine and around the world

The old Austrian building with very steep stairs to the second floor – this is how the building of Vyzhnytsia city council at Bukovyna looks like. Maria Nikitina is brought there on hands every time and her wheelchair is carried separately. She is a young deputy. And this way is the only chance for her to participate in meetings. It is impossible to equip the building with an elevator because a wall where it could be installed needs reconstruction. The local community is lack of budget. So, what is it like to be a woman politician in a wheelchair in Ukraine?

According to WHO, 15% of the world’s population has a form of disability1. UNO Women claims that there are more disabilities among women than men – one of five women over 18 has one of its forms2.

6,1% of Ukraine’s population has disabilities according to official statistics – it is almost 2,8 million people3. At the same time, there are 336 men in Verkhovna Rada and only 88 women, while no one of them has any form of disability.

There are still fewer women in politics in 2020. There are only 24,3% of them among parliamentarians, 6,6% among heads of states, and 5,2% among prime-ministers.4 But we also face a lack of data about women with disabilities in politics. As mentioned in UN Flagship Report on Disability and Sustainable Development, the limited data shows incredibly low participation of women with disabilities in political processes and leading roles. Also, there is a low level of women’s participation in organizations for disabled people and national mechanisms for gender equality.

For example, Maria Nikitina, the deputy of Vyzhnytsia city council on a wheelchair, better than anybody knows about challenges for disabled women politicians. She told us about the way she had to pass to become MP.

It started in 2012 when my friend recommended me for the position of assistant of Chernivtsi regional council deputy. I started my work there and then happened the first time when I took participation in training for deputies’ assistants. I remember it to be interesting, useful, and totally new to me.

Time passed and the same friend accompanied me to the train to Kyiv, told about his idea to run for election, and offered to do this together…

This was my first election experience. It was successful as I had the whole team of assistants and supportive friends. Every day for 3 weeks I had meetings with electorate… most of them were in village markets. So often I returned home with a bottle of milk or bread or flowers. It was hard but fun.

People were interested in communication with woman candidate for deputy. They were interested in my age and disability. They often told me I could do nothing because I was in a wheelchair… And those were women who told me about that.

That time I didn’t pass to the council, nevertheless, I had enough votes. So, when there were elections to the local community council in 2016, sure there was no doubt if I should run for the elections. And I won.

However, as the results came, I got a call and I was told to give up my mandate and pass it to the other person. I remember my anger, indignation, fear, and even despair. It felt dirty and offensive. But my friends stood on my defense, and one of them even arrived from Kyiv to be in the context of the situation. I don’t know where I would be if they didn’t support me. I thought I could not go through that kind of pressure.

Maria tells that after her victory she started a project about the accessibility of sidewalks in three cities of the Chernivtsi region. She also got an idea to launch a “Female school for major’s assistants”.

«Why is it female school? Why is it for disabled women? So, why not? I want disabled women to develop themselves, feel their influence and importance. We worked with Chernivtsi major’s assistant Lubov Svidirenko (she is a public activist), and with Olena Babeshko, the assistant of Vyzhnytsia major», – tells the deputy.

According to Maria Nikitina, local authorities were glad to support this initiative. But she also has a dream to expand this experience to all Ukrainian cities and to united local communities.

«This could help to develop communities and inclusive society. So we are looking for partners and financing to expand the project», – she added.

More information about “Female major’s assistants” you can find in a podcast on Hromadske radio.

On one hand, according to the Ukrainian Constitution, every man and woman had a right to elect and be elected. But the right does not mean the possibility. Disabled women are often discriminated against for sex and health and face system challenges when they accomplish their rights and obligations. Those challenges could be either legal or physical and behavioral.

2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities includes gender equality as a basic principle and claims «disability is an evolving concept that is a result of interaction between people with disabilities and relative and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal footing with others».

It is extremely important to support disabled women in their political careers, participation in state governing without discrimination, equally with others, and getting more managing positions both on local and national levels.