Amid Ukraine's turmoil, women's rights must not be forgotten

When a war is going on, the thing that is most easily sidelined is the rights of the marginalised. The provisional Ukrainian government includes figures who have been openly sexist, such as the deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Sych, of the far-right Svoboda party. If these people retain power after the general election on 25 May, the already difficult position of Ukrainian women is likely to get worse.

In April 2013 Svoboda, then an opposition party, registered a bill that would have outlawed abortion even in cases of rape. Sych was widely quoted as saying that rape "cannot be proved" and that "[a woman] should lead such a lifestyle so as to not be exposed to the risk of rape. In particular, [she should not be] drinking alcoholic beverages in questionable company." Sadly, in post-communist Europe such views are not uncommon.

The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalise abortion in 1920, when it also granted women equality under the law, and legalised homosexuality. Both abortion and homosexuality were later banned under Stalin (between 1936 and 1955) but abortion was re-legalised by Khrushchev (though homosexuality was not). Since the collapse of communism, women's rights have not fared well. Hungary introduced a new constitution in 2011, which "protects life from the moment of conception", and Catholic Poland is notorious for restricting women's basic rights. In both Russia and Ukraine, abortion remains legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy but recently the apparent stability has started to crumble even in the former USSR. As well as passing laws curtailing "homosexual propaganda", conservative lawmakers have banned the advertising of abortion services.

Post-communist Ukraine has excelled when it comes to sexism – after the economic collapse, large numbers of women were left with little choice but to become sex workers, or find work as cleaners or "mail-order brides" abroad. This situation is exacerbated by the power of the Orthodox church, which has great political influence both in Russia and Ukraine; has close links to oligarch-dominated business; and shapes the lives of women, just as the Catholic church does in Poland. It was the orthodox church that prompted an anti-abortion law proposed in 2012 by an MP in Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party. The law was resisted by organisations such as Feminist Offensive, which demanded separation of church and state.

The best-known Ukrainian protest group, Femen, who were once effective, have now largely moved to France and all but abandoned their actions in Ukraine. Since then, the role of fighting for women's rights has been taken on by much less publicised leftist groups and NGOs.

The EU should start taking sides and standing up for women. It was put on a pedestal by many at the start of the Maidan uprising but too often membership appears to have more of a monetary than moral meaning. Neoliberal austerity programmes are enforced, but what about civil rights?

If we want an equal, democratic Europe, economics cannot be the only priority. At a time of political upheaval it's easy to neglect women's rights. Those who today support "free Ukraine" and brand criticism as tacit support for Putin's regime are denying Ukraine the rights they themselves enjoy. The new Kiev parliament has a neoliberal agenda that is in keeping with the current politics of the west, but will it also provide a liberalism of rights? If we hope for the westernisation of Ukraine, and to wrest it from Putin's hands, let's make sure this doesn't simply mean further exploitation of the country – and of the women who live there.

Agata Pyzik is the author of Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West and the blog Nuits Sans Nuit et Quelques Jours Sans Jours.

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