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Gender Equality at the Heart of Recovery: Advocating for Gender-Responsive Procurement in Ukraine

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, the plan for recovery and reconstruction is already in the making. The most recent rapid damage and needs assessments estimate the cost of reconstruction and recovery at now USD 411 billion, with the process estimated to take at least 10 years. As these plans begin to come together, government agencies and international donors are considering how Ukraine’s public procurement policies can be used strategically as a means of economic recovery.




June 28, 2023

Procuring goods, services, and infrastructure creates local jobs, promotes transparency and prevents corruption, all while contributing to the reconstruction of infrastructure necessary for the livelihoods of millions in a post-war context. But for procurement to also help empower women and other groups disproportionately affected by the war, public procurement policies must be gender-responsive. The integration of gender considerations into procurement processes has the potential to generate greater inclusivity and benefits for different gender groups in planning and executing publicly funded projects.

This article looks at what doing so would mean for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstructions, including for advancing gender equality in a post-war context, and examine what lessons other countries can provide on using public procurement as a means of promoting inclusion after conflict.

War’s gendered impacts: the state of play in Ukraine

In Ukraine, the war has had gendered impacts on women and men. While many combatants and civilians continue to lose their lives or suffer severe physical and psychological harm, women, children and the elderly lack access to essential services, resources, and humanitarian aid. Women and girls also face an increased care burden and have to look for alternative livelihoods, while they are also at risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and trafficking. Displacement can heighten these security risks and place women in even more precarious and dangerous situations.

Reconstruction will mobilize billions of USD from both public and private funds. The Ukrainian government will work alongside donors and investors to rebuild and repair its infrastructure. This will include energy infrastructure; roads and public transport; services such as healthcare, schooling, and childcare; industry; agriculture; housing; markets; parks; and other public spaces. In short: all of this infrastructure is expected to respond to the needs and support the livelihoods of all genders and socioeconomic groups.

Some groups affected by the war, like women and internally displaced groups, will likely face significant barriers to participating in the economy in the aftermath of conflict. The destruction of infrastructure such as educational institutions, safe transportation, and childcare can make it difficult for women, and especially women heads-of-households, to fully participate in the post-war economy due to increased caregiving responsibilities.

Why gender-responsive procurement matters

In recent years, gender-responsive procurement has emerged as a strategy for addressing a range of structural gender inequalities which pervade many sectors, including the overwhelming allocation of public spending to businesses owned or managed by men. This approach to procurement also aims to address persistent institutionalized discrimination affecting women, such as the prevalence of the gender pay gap, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence in the workplace.

UN Women defines gender-responsive procurement as “the sustainable selection of services, goods or civil works that considers the impact on gender equality and women’s empowerment.” In other words, gender-responsive procurement encourages buyers and suppliers to examine the impact of their activities on women and men and deliver contracts in a way that addresses their different needs and interests.

Gender-responsive procurement supports the allocation of public resources to benefit all gender groups while serving to improve the working conditions and participation of women and women-owned businesses (WOBs) in supply chains

Gender-responsive procurement supports the allocation of public resources to benefit all gender groups while serving to improve the working conditions and participation of women and women-owned businesses (WOBs) in supply chains. The EU legal and policy framework around procurement mentions the “strategic use of procurement, including for the advancement of social objectives.” The European Commission’s 2020-2025 gender strategy also states the importance of socially responsible procurement to fight discrimination between gender groups and promote equality.

When it comes to planning for conflict recovery, gender-responsive procurement is also showing promising results.

Social inclusion in public procurement: lessons from South Africa

In other countries, governments have used public procurement policies to facilitate more equal and inclusive economies following times of crises and political turmoil. One such example is South Africa, whose 1996 Constitution—adopted after apartheid—provides for “categories of preference in the allocation of contracts, and the protection or advancement of persons or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination.”

In 2000, South Africa’s Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA) was then established to enact preferential treatment to historically discriminated individuals and groups who suffered discrimination under apartheid. Later, in 2003, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act (B-BBEE) was adopted to establish a framework for the promotion of black economic empowerment and advancing the participation of Black People, as defined in the Act, in the economy. Both acts aim to enhance the participation of historically disadvantaged groups in the economy through the allocation of contracts to South African-owned enterprises, the creation of new jobs at the local level, and by supporting micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)owned by Black people.

The PPPFA and the B-BBEE also contain provisions for supporting Black women’s empowerment by prioritizing bids from women-owned businesses (WOBs) and developing WOB supplier databases. South Africa’s Preferential Procurement Regulations specifically aim to use public procurement as a strategic lever for social and economic transformation, including targets and quotas for WOBs.

Various other bills, provisions, government initiatives and funds have also since been launched to promote the participation of women, specifically Black women, in the South Africa economy. They include the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill and government-funded initiatives like the Isivande Women’s Fund and the NEF Women Empowerment Fund, which supported more than 1,000 businesses owned by Black women .

The adoption of a socially inclusive public procurement policy worked as an amplifier, fostering targeted action toward disadvantaged groups and individuals historically excluded from participating in the economy

Following the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a commitment to dedicate 40% of government procurement spending to WOBs as part of the national recovery plan. UN Women has been supporting the development of a technical task team across government departments to help with the implementation of those procurement processes. While there are still several legislative, institutional, and cultural barriers to elevating WOBs in South Africa, the adoption of a socially inclusive public procurement policy worked as an amplifier, fostering targeted action toward disadvantaged groups and individuals historically excluded from participating in the economy.   

Public procurement as a response to crisis: the Colombian case

Colombia stands out as an example of a country which continues to work towards gender-responsive public procurement in response to the inequalities between groups after decades of conflict.  Colombia’s rural ethnic groups were especially impacted, with their access to land and livelihoods severely curtailed, and women and girls affected by sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2016, after the official peace accord, estimates showed that women created 40% of Colombia’s microenterprises. However, women faced obstacles that made it difficult for them to sustain or expand them, including informal work, the double burden of care, lack of access to credit, and difficulty to access and understand procurement procedure, among others.

Colombia also struggled with low levels of competition in public procurement. In response, the national procurement agency began working to improve competition by adopting new laws and introducing other institutional changes. Among those was the creation of a guide specifying standard social clauses, to support socially responsible public purchasing in the procurement value chain. This could be used to prioritize WOBs, as  exemplified by the Municipality of Cali, which defined a socially responsible public supplier as one which had at least 10% female employees, specifically women heads-of-households.

The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected women’s employment in Colombia. The President, Iván Duque Márquez, issued a directive to generate employment, identifying women, especially those in rural areas who had been doubly impacted because of armed conflict, as having suffered most economically through the pandemic. This directive mentioned specifically the creation of measures to boost the participation of WOBs in the public procurement system, as a response to the employment crisis.

The National Procurement Agency and the Office of the Presidential Advisor for Women’s Equity subsequently partnered with UN Women and the Open Contracting Partnership to devise a roadmap for implementing the 2020 Entrepreneurial Law. The law aims to establish a regulatory framework to promote entrepreneurship in Colombia in order to increase social welfare and generate greater equity.

This law specifically mentions the inclusion of policies and programs which adopt a different criterion for women-led MSMEs, including women heads-of-households, victims of armed conflicts, and reintegrated people. It includes a tie-breaking directive, stating that in a situation where two or more bidders submit identical or closely ranked proposals, female heads-of-households are preferred. A similar tie-breaking factor is also included for Indigenous, Black, and Afro-Colombians. The framework also created the Fondo Mujer Emprende: a government fund to support women starting businesses.

The law resulted in the establishment of several pilot programs, the creation of gender-responsive indicators to measure the participation of WOBs and their progress, and the development of e-procurement platforms, workshops, and other dissemination techniques to increase the familiarity of WOBs with the public procurement process. While it may still be too early to assess the impact of these measures on women and WOBs nationally, pilot projects do indicate that gender-responsive procurement strategies yield economic returns for women and small agricultural businesses, while increasing competitiveness and transparency.

Looking Ahead: what these cases mean for Ukraine

Ukraine’s public procurement system had already undergone an impressive transformation prior to Russia’s full scale-invasion. The introduction of electronic procurement, Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, and the accession to the plurilateral World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Government Procurement drove major shifts in Ukraine’s public procurement policy toward more transparency, tackling a legacy of corruption.

In 2016, all government agencies began using the e-procurement system ProZorro, due to an initiative led by Transparency International Ukraine. Both government officials and civil society are stressing the importance of retaining this effective and transparent procurement system post-war. Fraud, corruption, and collusion threaten the allocation of public spending, which could lead to losses of precious time and funding during recovery.  Ukraine’s government and several other stakeholders have expressed a willingness to implement transparent, modern, and progressive digital infrastructure, including procurement infrastructure, but little is currently known on whether future public procurement policy would also target greater social inclusion and equality.  

These countries’ experiences could serve as potential roadmaps for Ukraine’s post-war recovery planning, building on systems that Ukraine already has in place

As the examples of South Africa and Colombia show, public procurement has been successfully used to respond to social inequalities and economic crisis. These countries’ experiences could serve as potential roadmaps for Ukraine’s post-war recovery planning, building on systems that Ukraine already has in place.

By adopting a gender-responsive approach to public procurement, the Ukrainian government can maximize the creation of jobs and economic benefits for groups most at risk of poverty and marginalization, establish criteria that supports safer and more inclusive workplaces, and adopt standards that reduce the negative impacts of reconstruction on women and girls. Public procurement policies can therefore be leveraged to support the reintegration and inclusion of a variety of groups impacted by the war: women, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, internally displaced persons (IDP), former combatants, and people with disabilities, to name a few.

Ukraine already has strong policies and legislative frameworks which could foster and support the adoption of a gender-responsive public procurement system. Ukraine’s current laws on public procurement allow for the consideration of environmental and social aspects in the evaluation of bids, while the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security already defines a space for women’s active participation at the forefront of recovery efforts. Alongside those crucial frameworks and with an understanding that public procurement in post-war Ukraine can catalyze social inclusion and recovery for all, stakeholders should treat gender responsiveness as an essential part of any public procurement policies.

Procurement cannot single-handedly ensure the full inclusion of different groups in post-war Ukraine, but paired with gender-responsive budgeting and project planning, the government, donors, and other stakeholders can use it strategically as a tool to contribute further to inclusive recovery. Many guidance documents for developing gender-responsive public procurement policies and criteria already exist, but the adoption of gender-responsive public procurement policy by Ukraine’s leadership is vital. This way, the billions of USD that will flow into reconstructing Ukraine will help create a more inclusive economy where people of all genders thrive.

The author would like to thank Ronja Bechauf and Liesbeth Casier for their feedback and help with this article. 


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