Trailblazers: Four women from eastern Ukraine changing their communities
04 November 2021
When armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it was the start of a tumultuous and insecure era. Many Ukrainians fled the area, near Russia’s border, and left everything behind – their livelihoods, homes, communities, and sometimes even family members – in search of safety. They didn’t know if or when they would return.
Countless Ukrainians met hardship and uncertainty with resolve. Meet four women trailblazers whose stories — in their own words — show that courage comes in all forms.
“I am now ready to create positive changes” — Olena Halkanova
During the period of active combat action, my family and I were forced to leave our hometown [of Pervomaisk] and start looking for a new place to live. Although we moved to a safer place, we still live in the ‘grey zone’ [between government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas of Luhansk, Ukraine’s easternmost province]. Hearing the small arms, tracked vehicles and blasts at the same time as children’s laughter outside is hard.
The conflict continues, but I am now ready to create positive changes. A few years ago, I started a volunteer group. At first, we helped people in our city access necessities such as coal and firewood, but we soon understood that we need to change the strategy and enable them to help themselves in a more sustainable way. This is when I attended the training on Community Mobilization for Empowerment [sponsored by the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UN RPP), implemented by UN Women, UNDP, UNFPA, and FAO].
Now, I have six self-help groups with 35 participants in total. The next project we want to develop is the reconstruction of the city garden to create at least a degree of normalcy and to show people how they can change their situation by themselves.
“The more visible Roma women are, the greater impact they have on society as a whole” – Christina Bilous
Roma women and girls often don’t have equal opportunities to meaningfully participate in the social, economic, and public life of their community. Bias and negative stereotypes about the Roma are deeply rooted in Ukrainian society. The main goal of my work is to dismantle these stereotypes and combat social exclusion, discrimination, and violence against the Roma. As the old saying goes: “knock and the door will open.”
Two years ago, with support from UN Women, I established [a Roma advocacy group called Sumnakuno Petalo]. We already have some tangible results. Last year I implemented a literacy programme. More than thirty Roma women and men learned the Ukrainian alphabet and basic arithmetic in these classes. With other members of the Self-Help Group, I also advocated for the adoption of the Safe Cities and Public Spaces for Women and Girls programme in Toretsk, [which is now] one of the four cities in Ukraine that adopted this programme based on the UN Women methodology [and implemented by the UNRPP].
I am convinced that to address the issues faced by Roma women and girls in our community there is a need to include more Roma women in local decision-making processes.
“I’m a changemaker and not afraid to stand up” — Nadia Tutarieva
In my community, there are strong social norms that dictate that the man is the provider and the woman is the homemaker.
After my father died when I was just eight, I was brought up by women who taught me to confront these stereotypes.
As a community, we have been affected by the ongoing conflict in our region. I have seen how women are often the ones most psychologically and economically affected by the conflict. Yet, we are rarely asked about our experiences or to take part in peacebuilding programmes.
In 2020, I launched a civil society organization with two other local women to promote gender equality and increase women’s roles in peacebuilding and civil life. We’re currently working with about 40 local women running self-help groups. We’re also trying to bring about practical change. For example, in the next five years we aim to open a village kindergarten to help mothers like myself participate in paid work.
It frustrates me that although women represent 53 percent of the population in Ukraine, there are so few women involved in policy or decision-making. Change has to come from the ground up! This year I decided to run for the role of village council member in the local elections, but the elections were canceled because of security concerns. I’m determined to stand in the next round.
“I want everyone to know the importance of their human rights” — Olena Nebeska
My life took a dramatic turn after the conflict began. Back then I did not realize that my move from home would be a one-way trip. Every day after fleeing my home, I was waiting for the moment when I could go back to my regular life, but nothing changed.
I didn’t think much about human rights before because I thought I had them. The conflict transformed me.
All my life I used to work for financial security. Now [after partaking in Community Mobilization for Empowerment trainings], I work for the people in the community. Twenty-four self-help groups have been formed with my support. Women who joined the groups have already created three non-governmental organizations in their villages.
I regularly collect information from community members to bring their issues to the public hearings in city hall. Our community is in the grey zone, so we have a lot of problems with lighting in the streets and infrastructure.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, my community, as well as adjacent villages, are totally isolated from the external world. All transportation channels in and out are closed… Now we are collecting information about COVID-19' challenges and problems, including the violence cases, to share it with local authorities.
This story draws on previously published interviews and material from UN Women, Europe and Central Asia. Editorial support by Michal Shmulovich, Development Coordination Office (DCO). To learn more about the work taking place in Ukraine, please visit Ukraine.UN.org. To learn more about the results of our work in this area and beyond, please visit the UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.
The Community Mobilization for Empowerment trainings are organized by UN Women as part of the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme. This initiative is being implemented by UN Women, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women