We are seeing images and coverage of Ukrainian women experiencing conflict-related sexual violence and other vulnerabilities in the media around the world. Over 90% of more than seven million people who fled Ukraine are women and children. Many men remained in Ukraine to defend their country, as per Ukraine’s martial law. What is often missing in the coverage is the strength and resilience Ukrainian women are demonstrating in protecting their country and families in the face of extreme challenges.
Many female leaders in Ukraine have been taking charge by spearheading the country’s humanitarian response, joining the army or leading public service delivery, as many male civil servants have been conscripted in the military. Female health workers and entrepreneurs are providing essential services and goods to the war-affected population. Ukrainian women have found new employment opportunities in and outside of Ukraine to take care of their family and bring some normality to their bitterly altered lives. Women’s organisations on the ground are leading humanitarian assistance, advocacy and public outreach to support their communities.
The women showing leadership in Ukraine
Over the past months, I have met and spoken with many women who are demonstrating leadership in times of war. For example, Iryna Gudz, the Deputy Mayor of NovoGrad-Volynski city in Zhytomir province, has been working day and night to support more than 3,000 people by providing safe spaces and other assistance. With the influx of displaced populations transiting to the west of the country in buses flooded beyond triple capacity, Iryna and her community have ensured that these people have food, water, medicines, hygiene products, clothes, a roof over their head and other needs. Iryna personally hosted many people in her home who were transiting from Kyiv and other municipalities to safer areas. She even hosted some with pets, in spite of the fact that she was not used to having pets at home.
“It has been heartbreaking to see people suffer this way,” says Iryna. “None of us feel safe. We can see our country in red colours, uncertain who will be targeted next. Yet witnessing the dedication of many women and men in our community, sparing no resources to help our fellow citizens, has been the most inspiring experience of my life. The war has changed our lives. Everyone in the community donated clothes, medicine, money, weaved protective nets. When people are mobilised and contribute from the bottom of the heart, it already feels like victory, like we will win the war.”
When asked about the key needs of the people of Ukraine, Iryna requests more safe places for children. “Presently, only one kindergarten works in our municipality,” she says. “We are trying to help people with all needs. Mothers come to work with their children to make sure that, in case of danger, they can have the children near them.” Iryna has called for more humanitarian assistance including beds, bed sheets and food parcels.
From social work to essential services
Ilona Yeleneva, a director at the Labor and Health Social Initiatives non-governmental organisation, is another woman who has demonstrated leadership during the war. With her team and partners, Ilona instantly shifted the focus of the organisation to rapidly respond to the challenges Ukrainians were facing using all available expertise, resources and networks.
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Ilona convened some hundred social workers to support people arriving from Kyiv and other war-affected areas in Ukraine. Provisions included essential services such as medical care, health referrals, social and psychological support and humanitarian aid such as bedsheets and food, including for small children. Ilona shares how children were negatively impacted first by Covid-19 lockdowns and now by this war. They are spending most of their time online and they are traumatised. She reiterates the importance of keeping them active and providing a healthy environment. Fearing the closure of banks in Ukraine, Ilona and her team hurriedly processed payments and procurements of humanitarian aid, logistics and transportation.
Speaking of her experience during the early days of the war, Ilona says: “We were stressed but had to take action fast. Hearing of the massacres in Bucha, we were terrified when we couldn’t get in touch with our bookkeeper in the city for three weeks. She was safe, thankfully, and still works with us.”
Having already worked remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation is again working remotely day and night. Ilona is also the main caretaker of her parents and in-laws. Being an inexperienced driver and with no public transport running, she had no option but to drive her family to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, for her father-in-law’s brain tumour operation.
Talking of the compassion and generosity of Ukrainians, Ilona shares that “despite the challenges along the way, locals were offering free tea and biscuits at checkpoints, with an open heart. Others continued to help us along the way. It is inspirational how my fellow Ukrainians dropped everything to assist us and others whom they had never met before. Our daily dream is for peace. It is not easy for Ukrainian women to leave everything behind, including their husband, and find a place in another country with unfamiliar rules and conditions, not knowing how long to travel. Yet we remain united in bringing peace back to our country.”
Iryna, Ilona and other Ukrainian women whom I speak with daily inspire me with their devotion and optimism. Despite the suffering, they are leading change in times of crisis with an extraordinary dedication and compassion. These are Ukrainian women leaders, who are at the front line of rebuilding their beloved country and homes. We need to empower and support them more than ever.