THE BLOG
04/07/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Without Economic Opportunities, Ukraine's Women May Turn to Putin

During a report after Crimeans voted to join Russia, a featured woman caught my attention: She rejoiced, she said, because her money would now stay in Crimea rather than going to corrupt officials in Kyiv. I cringed and sighed: The corrupt officials in Kyiv included Russian President Putin's buddy, President Yanukovych, whose Versailles-like palace was built with money stolen from all Ukrainians. It is likely that her money will now go to Moscow, rather than to Kyiv. Yet her view was a clear indicator of the injuries for which Ukrainians seek repair. Were more decision-makers to see and listen to average Ukrainian women, they would hear a consistent complaint: After years of corruption, women want a fair system with economic opportunity.

For months now, there has been a constant flow of rapidly unfolding events in Ukraine -- from images of protestors in Kyiv, to masked men wielding guns in Crimea and Russian troops on Ukraine's Eastern border. Yet there has been another constant: continued coverage, by both cameras and commentators, of men -- who wield weapons, engage in battle and exercise or seek power.

Thus, the exception of featuring the face and voice of a woman in Crimea was a reminder of a different constant, of other battles: The many Ukrainians in a population of over 45 million who have been engaged in a long, losing struggle for economic survival. Victims of corruption and feigned policies, they have toiled behind the scenes, ignored by the cameras and headlines. Among those consistently overlooked are the tough, determined and weary women of Ukraine. Whether they fervently fear Russian control or welcome it, they all yearn for the chance to build a future for themselves and their families.

Even as "more pressing issues" demand attention, policy-makers must address the needs of rural women. Even as events surrounding Crimea may have conjured memories of Czechoslovakia ceded to Hitler, we should also recall the "Great Famine" (the "Holodomor" -- Hunger in Ukraine) under Stalin.

Last summer, in the course of a gender review focused on women farmers and family farms, I saw pervasive evidence of women's economic struggles. We met with women (and men) who were family farmers and members of dairy cooperatives. The women worked from sun-up to sun-down. Industrious, determined and fully aware that the return for their labors would be squeezed by a government that not only failed to recognize and serve their needs, but that was engaged in extraordinary levels of criminal theft, they toiled on.

Impressions of two contrasting symbols of Ukrainian infrastructure stick in my mind: Having not been in Kyiv since 1998, I asked on the way from the airport into the city about a brand new, stylish structure on the river bank. "A restaurant?" I asked. "No, the President's new helicopter pad." In contrast, when we drove from Kyiv to Lviv four days later, the roads were in such a state of disrepair that they reminded me of roads in post-conflict Angola. While repairs should have been nearly completed before winter's snow and ice, as we crisscrossed the country, including the Eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, those roads not frequented by rich, high-level officials were but a series of large, amoeba-shaped potholes.

While our objective was to identify unmet needs for women farmers, it became clear that the roads, for both women and men, were so impassable that it was not possible to get the products of days and months of back-breaking work to market. We saw a huge truck full of melons that were to have been sold to a middleman for a Polish buyer. Having just learned that the buyer had found an alternative supplier, and not having the capacity to get the melons to market, the farmers knew the melons would simply rot. The result: Waste of money, seeds, fertilizer and human labor.

Today, it is not surprising that the international community is scrambling to counter Putin's brazen and maniacal moves. Of course Putin is ruthless, and Ukraine as a nation is of geopolitical importance. And it is imperative that steps be taken to deal with Ukraine's massive debt (which, sadly, will only increase with military expenditures).

But most of those who stayed in Maidan Square in freezing temperatures throughout the worst of the winter were neither fascists nor anarchists. Many Ukrainian women and men were seeking a political system that would support economic fairness: To be able to work hard, and gain the most basic and deserved fruits of one's labors.

For many Ukrainian women, their economic needs may outweigh Putin's power grab in Crimea. While the images of Yanukovych's palace may have startled some, all rural Ukrainians knew that their leaders were stealing their national resources. For most, a crook is a crook, whether Yanukovych's oligarchs or Putin's.

Thus while Putin keeps the world's attention glued to the foreground of geopolitical tensions, Ukrainian farmers will soon be planting in the background. To be sure, though Ukraine's fiscal crisis is not their fault, Ukrainians will now have to "tighten their belts" -- and they understand that. But if the EU, US and IMF require sacrifices that perpetuate an environment where family farms have little chance to succeed economically, more women in Ukraine will turn to Russia with hopes for a better deal -- to Putin's delight.