Women self-organise against violence in eastern Ukraine’s frontlines

I travelled across the conflict region and found local women actively organising against gender-based violence – doing the work of state actors. #12DaysofResistance

Nadzeya Husakouskaya
5 January 2021, 12.42pm
Women self-organise against violence in eastern Ukraine’s frontlines
Illustration by Inge Snip

She had to flee her home when the war in eastern Ukraine started. When her second home was shelled as well, she couldn’t sit still. She saw how the women in her community, the tiny town of Sviatohirsk with three times more internally displaced people than its own population, were trying hard to keep everything running. 

Katerina Khaneva, a petite woman with bright red hair, works as a gender-based violence coordinator at Slavic Heart, an organisation that started as a volunteer initiative in June 2014, amid the emerging conflict.

Khaneva may be self-taught, but there are few as passionate when she speaks about her work: the rights of women. 

“You have to understand that these women were minding their houses, growing their vegetables and caring for their chickens when all this started,” she says of the women who, like her, had to flee or who lived in the territories directly affected by the conflict. “These women went through hell and they survived.”

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I first met Khaneva in 2019 when my colleague and I travelled to villages along the frontline while documenting violence against women in the conflict-affected regions for Amnesty International. 

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is coming to its seventh year. With international attention on the global pandemic and regional news focused on the protests in Belarus and the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine is overlooked. 

Yet its lasting effects are devastating, especially for women and girls. Lives have been changed drastically and forever. We heard horrific stories of domestic violence being exacerbated by the conflict. But what struck us most was that in face of adversity and violence, including gender-based violence, these women did not give in: they organised. Together they started building networks of support to address gaps in protection and services. 

“In face of the adversity and violence, these women did not give in: they organised and started building networks of support to address gaps in protection and services.” 

It isn’t only Slavic Heart, registered as an NGO in 2015, that is doing great work. We came across women along the contact line, often self-organised in grassroots initiatives, tackling violence against women and providing guidance and practical support for those affected. 

Our journeys along the frontline were long, and we would sometimes spend three or four hours driving, with the roads becoming patchier and muddier as we neared the villages. As we drove, there was a feeling of serenity – as if the war had never happened. It was spring, everything was bursting with green and the sun was bright and warm. But soldiers with weapons and sombre dour faces at checkpoints outside villages brought home the realities of the conflict. 

In the villages, we met local women, all in their late 30s, in grey Soviet-style cultural and administrative centres. They made us hot tea and we shared the cookies and sweets we had brought. 

A mural in Avdiivka, a town close to the frontlines where women self-organise against domestic violence.
Photo courtesy of Katerina Khaneva.

Many of these women were survivors of domestic and, in some cases, sexual violence. We expected to hear about their experiences. But what surprised us was that everywhere we went, women told us how they were actively organising against such abuse. 

These women are ready to fight back in any way possible: from accompanying fellow survivors to police stations and hospitals, and ensuring the correct procedures were followed, to recruiting volunteers who can provide sustainable psychological support to children and women. They strive to give legal advice where they can, while learning their rights and intricacies of Ukraine’s legal system. They gather and support one another, and spread information about domestic violence to work toward its de-normalisation in their communities. 

Khaneva told us that state structures evaporated when the conflict erupted. In many locations we visited, women were the first responders, before the international aid arrived. “There was total chaos with many older people, women and children still staying in their houses,” she says. “Women had no choice but to take responsibility and ensure that those left behind survived. They started with providing food for the most vulnerable, checking on elderly, negotiating with the military”.  

“Women had no choice but to take responsibility and ensure that those left behind survived”  

Irina Pavlyk works on the frontlines with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She explains that during times of military conflict, women’s issues are often not taken seriously by the local authorities or communities: “Women’s rights and protection of women are not seen as a priority, and women are left on their own with the growing risks of domestic and sexual violence and the doubled ferocity of abuse.”

Often women are the only ones who explicitly challenge authorities and try to hold them accountable. As a result, the authorities often push back. During one of our first meetings, Natalia Kirkach, the director and co-founder of Slavic Heart, says that when she spoke to local people about gender-based violence, some responded: “There was no such problem before you started talking about it.”  

Women often operate in such hostile environments, due not only to the conflict, but also to deeply rooted patriarchal stereotypes. However, their work is grounded in solidarity, compassion and the desire for change. As one grassroots activist from the city of Vuhledar explained to us: “We don’t work against men, we work for women”. This could be a motto for many initiatives in eastern Ukraine.

“We don’t work against men, we work for women”

There are many challenges. Activists must gain the knowledge and capacity to deal with growing demand – to learn the laws and by-laws, to develop gender sensitivity and understanding of the dynamics of violence, to grasp the best practices, to share the knowledge. This is often made more difficult by a language barrier. As Katerina Khaneva notes, “they don’t know English to read the reports and information that is out there, and they may not have a stable internet if any”. 

To make matters worse, to access funding from donors, women must register an organisation, which entails filling out complex forms and travelling to the nearest city to submit documents, when many can barely afford to travel even to access basic medical care. 

As horrendous as the conflict is, it has given impetus to eastern Ukraine’s growing grassroots women’s movement. This self-organised women’s movement preceded international humanitarian intervention and started taking shape not due to ongoing military activities, but in spite of it. The women in the region have lived experience of war and community building and they have to be given the opportunity to learn further – to speak up, to be listened to and to be invited into any peacemaking negotiations.

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