Hanna Voinich, Women’s Information and Coordination Center, Dnepropetrovsk

July 2009

Russian transcription by Olga Zelinska

Translation and editing by Sophie Pinkham

Hanna Voinich: The mission of our organization is to improve the status of women in Ukrainian society, to protect women’s and children’s rights, and to increase civic involvement of Ukrainian women…

The main directions of our work are first, to raise awareness of gender equality, in as much as it exists in Ukraine, and the consequences of the absence of gender equality, terrible problems like domestic violence and trafficking in Ukrainian women.  Because in terms of domestic violence, 90-95% of sufferers are women, children, and the elderly…though now it does happen that men end up in sex- or work-slavery.  But all the same, 90% [of trafficked Ukrainians] are women.  Prevention of these negative consequences of gender inequality…promoting gender equality and development of economic opportunities for women.  We’ve also started working on family forms of upbringing for orphans and children removed from their parents’ care.  Because that’s generally related to women and children….

Sophie Pinkham: And what kind of events, what kind of work do you do concretely?

HV: We have three hotlines that operate all the time.  A crisis prevention hotline.  People call when they’re experiencing domestic violence, or when they want to go abroad, or when they’ve become victims of human trafficking.

We have a hotline for business questions.  In the beginning we had a business center.  It operated for five years with the support of USAID.  Then resources for it ended.  It was a big project.  We could organize the work of the hotline.  Now we counsel women and men who work in business.  But 70% of callers are women…

Our third hotline is on legal questions about adoption, creation of family-style children’s homes, foster families for children who are orphans or who have been taken from their parents’ custody…

We also do trainings and seminars for target audiences such as local government representatives, people who have an influence over the resolution of these problems.  Starting with law enforcement bodies…and ending with social services, management of family and youth affairs, various government officials.  Why?  Because what is civil society?  It’s people who are one step ahead of government officials because they are more familiar with the needs of target groups…and if, for example, local government changes staff, we have been working since 1996.  And we have meaningful experience and good results.

For example, on our organization’s initiative the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, all Ukraine, as the result of an initiative from Dnepropetrovsk, an advocacy campaign, changed the procedure for police intervention in cases of domestic violence.

So we do trainings.  We believe that we have the right to train government officials and representatives.  They even request our trainings all the time, because they see themselves that there’s staff turnover and people arrive who know very little.

…We have various conferences on these themes, roundtables and so on.  And we also try, and have been successful in doing so, to influence legal standards, Ukrainian legislation, to move towards defense of rights and better representation of the interests of vulnerable parts of the population.

It’s women in particular who suffer from various negative phenomena, it’s women who experience gender inequality, it’s orphans who have few rights and become victims of human trafficking…

SP: In your opinion, why is domestic violence and violence against women such a common problem in Ukraine?

HV: In Ukraine.  You know, in principle this is a common problem all over the world, of course.  But…if Ukraine has struggled with it purposefully for the last 10 or 15 years, in other countries…we were in the Soviet Union, we were told by women leaders in social movements, “We’ve been working on this problem for a very short time—30 years.”  Understand?  So we’ve been working for half as long.

First of all, there’s gender inequality.  And domestic violence is a result of this gender inequality.  Why?

Second, the traditional roles of women and men have changed in Ukrainian society.  Men can’t fully support the family like they used to.  And it’s not because they got worse, but because living circumstances have changed.

A woman adapts better to new circumstances, starts working in the social sector like we did, and in manufacturing takes on a more masculine role.  And men…society still has old patriarchal stereotypes that men have to be the providers, and men suffer from this.  For example, if you’re interested in statistics, in Ukraine the death rate for men from 29-45 is four times that of women.  They suffer from this and they can’t fulfill traditional roles.

And patriarchal stereotypes are still alive, and what do they [men] do?  They drink, they become dependent on alcohol, on drugs, they get sick and this feeds domestic violence.  They have to find someone to blame.  And who’s to blame?  Who’s more weak physically?  Nature made it women.  Because 90% of domestic violence is suffered by women.

So the reason is this old patriarchal stereotype that survives in society.  Apart from that, there’s also a preconceived notion among law enforcement bodies to this problem, that “he beat her for a reason,” as they say…Can there really be a term, “beaten for a reason?”  They say, he came home—even some government officials say this—“well, he came home from work, he was working, and the house was a mess, the child hadn’t been fed, so he beat her.”

I was in Kiev recently, a government representation from Kiev said something like that, and we said, “And does he have the right to beat her?”  Change things, get divorced, resolve your problems with the child, don’t live like that.  Who gave the right to beat someone, to subject someone to violence?  Right?  It’s already physical violence.  And there’s also psychological, economic, sexual abuse.  Different types.  But all of them are accompanied by psychological violence.  Necessarily…

There still isn’t enough interaction between governmental bodies responsible in Ukraine for work against domestic violence.  There’s a Ukrainian law establishing a ministry of family and youth affairs that coordinates this work, there’s the Ministry of the Interior and local police who are responsible for preventing and punishing domestic violence…Information isn’t always passed from the police to the office of family and youth affairs and to social services, which should provide help.  There isn’t enough interaction between these structures.

There’s insufficient interaction between responsible structures, and not all oblasts of Ukraine have organizations that are strong and professional enough to monitor this process, to direct the government and monitor whether or not it’s fulfilling its responsibilities on the problem of domestic violence.  And then there are also factors like the [economic] crisis, in such a time these problems are aggravated even more…

We have this sort of organization.  In other oblasts they don’t, really.  Because, for example, we worked on these issues and created a mechanism for oblast cooperation between the government and society on work against domestic violence and assistance for victims.  And we disseminated this mechanism in eight Ukrainian oblasts.  We had working groups that coordinated social organizations, trained them in methods against domestic violence, trained law enforcement representatives, the office on family and youth affairs, social services.  At these multidisciplinary trainings they developed a plan of work.  Then we taught the social organizations to lobby for their interests—to do advocacy.

Now there’s a network of organizations from nine oblasts, all doing this kind of work.  Of course, statistics show that oblasts with these projects had a reduction in the number of severe injuries and murders in families…

And we are looking for resources to continue this work in other oblasts, in order to create a network of 25 organizations, one from every oblast, so that we could unite to create one response to this problem, so that this network was always cooperating, like a coalition.  So that in every oblast they could unite to change legislation.  Because only a coalition can attract the attention of society and of the mass media, to change the situation.

I believe that civil society must not only have educational and informational campaigns, but must also influence the government.  Monitor the government, and change legislation to help vulnerable groups.

Look, this is a publication for social workers [showing booklet], for the office of family and youth affairs…we disseminate it through the Ministry, for social organizations.

This is a textbook, a series of textbooks for police.  We recently finished this project.  We had support from the US Embassy.  Now we’re starting work again in Dnepropetrovsk.  We organized work and moved into other oblasts.  And here monitoring got weaker and it started again—failure to transmit information from law enforcement agencies to the office of family and youth affairs and, accordingly, to social services, meaning that less assistance was provided.

So this year we’re actively working again and the situation has improved.  The number of calls we receive on the hotline has increased, there’s increased trust for the police.  The police themselves direct people to our hotline, where women can receive legal and social help.  A year ago they opened a shelter in Dnepropetrovsk that can house 15 victims of domestic violence and trafficking, or from different crisis situations, a place where women can stay for three months, change something in their lives and so on.

SP: How did you start working in this field?

HV: Well, first of all, I worked at the Soros Foundation.  In the beginning I was a professor in a university.  Then they opened the Soros Foundation here.  I got a job at the Soros Foundation.  And I was responsible for higher education, middle education, educational programs…

And then I read George Soros’ book, “Open Society”…I understood that these foundations come and go.  We live in this country and have to change something.  We registered our own women’s organization.  Because there was a women’s program.  And we had our first training on gender equality, still working at the Soros Foundation.  And we knew very well how much gender inequality existed in Ukraine, and that legislation establishes equality, but in real life it’s not possible to use these laws, because there is no access to resources, there’s no individual responsibility of women or men in Ukrainian society, there are no obligations.  So while doing our trainings we decided that it was probably necessary to educate Ukrainian women.  Because they believe that they have to work, then run home earlier than their husbands, cook everything, clean…Our first training was to inform women that they suffer inequality in Ukraine.  Though even now, many government officials at trainings say that we have no gender inequality.

But then we looked at the consequences of this gender inequality.  One consequence is domestic violence.  If marriages were based from the beginning on parity, women wouldn’t suffer from this.  If they were conscious of the fact that it isn’t necessary to suffer this, it wouldn’t happen…the experience of our work shows that it doesn’t happen…if there is domestic violence and it isn’t rejected immediately, it leads to terrible consequences, all the way up to murder.  That’s why we started working on this issue.  Because it’s a very common problem in Ukraine…one in ten women experiences domestic violence.

We saw that legislation was incomplete, and we started working in that direction.  We worked in a large coalition to pass a law against domestic violence, and it was passed in 2001.  It changed the procedure for police intervention in cases of domestic violence.

…Through the Ministry of Family and Youth there’s now a working group to change the legislation related to domestic violence.  Because the last change was made in January 2009, but everything necessary still hasn’t been done.  And now there’s once again work to change this law.  A law can be changed after a year—not earlier, according to our procedure.

We had almost no one in our organization who experienced domestic violence themselves.  There were people who, for example, had experienced psychological abuse from their spouses…but we didn’t start working because we ourselves had suffered.  To be honest.  Because many organizations develop that way.  No.  It’s probably because we got acquainted with George Soros’ ideas in “Open Society.”  It’s a society in which the needs of vulnerable groups are fulfilled…that is, they have equal rights and possibilities.  That’s probably why.  And because we’re women ourselves.  And understand.  We take on male roles, according to these stereotypes.

SP: What’s your experience of being a woman leader in Ukrainian society?  What’s people’s attitude toward you?

HV: How can I explain?  You know, when you understand democratic processes and become a part of them, you become a self-sufficient person, and this is good for you.  What can I say?

It seems to me that our organization is respected by both law enforcement bodies and by government structures.  Maybe someone somewhere is afraid of us.  Because, for example, we speak very loudly about domestic violence statistics.  We bring them to the Ministry and disseminate them.  Sometimes the police are very unhappy.  But it’s not a problem, we make up.  It seems to me that respect for the organization is a sign of respect for the leader of the organization.

SP: Whether they’re a man or a woman.

HV: Yes.  To the leader.  It’s not important whether it’s a woman or a man.  Of course, women who are busy, like me, like the other members of our organization, of course they have less leisure time, less time to see loved ones.

But in general, when you become a part of democratic processes, you’re a self-sufficient citizen, and this is pleasant.  It’s pleasant, for instance, that work in this sector allows you to learn a lot.  It allows you to learn not only about our Ukrainian experience, but about foreign experience, allows you to travel around the world and see how people live.  And we need to tell our fellow citizens that it’s possible to live much better.  Respected fellow citizens, you don’t even know how to live in a human way.  Especially the older generation…

SP: Now a historical question.  How, in your opinion, did the Soviet Union affect the position of women, and how did their position change after the end of the Soviet Union in Ukraine?

HV: The Soviet Union was a double standard.  On one hand they proclaimed equality between men and women, and proclaimed it loudly; on the other hand, women earned 70% of what men did, though women’s level of education was higher then and higher now.  So in fact, there was gender inequality.  In terms of pay.

But in terms of social protections, women were better protected then than they are today—so were men, in principle.  Now there’s a program: have a child—in Ukraine there’s a Presidential order that a woman receives a payment, and for the birth of the second child a much larger payment.  Economic circumstances have changed.  Then everyone was equal.  There were some [economic] benefits available, stable ones.  Now every person has to take care of himself.

Social programs in Ukraine now, of course, aren’t very good.  They were better under the Soviet Union.  But then people needed less.  And gender inequality prospered in the Soviet Union, it blossomed and bore fruit.  Now things have gotten better—society became open thanks to social organizations, there are various information and educational campaigns, women have more opportunities.

Take me, for example.  I graduated from university with the highest marks…but I couldn’t aspire to anything, because people were in positions where they’d be till they went on pension, and…in the Soviet Union the attitude was, “He’s older, that means he has the right to this position, and you’re young, you can’t have it.”  Now that doesn’t matter!  Now they look at capabilities.  Then there was a Soviet tradition, young people work here, old people work here, do this.  Now women have many more opportunities.

There’s research showing that in the last 20 years, women’s earnings have increased by 40% worldwide, and men’s earnings have only increased about 1%, I think.  Women’s earnings on an international scale.  Of course, this applies to Ukraine as well.

Regardless of the fact that Ukraine became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, women didn’t receive access to resources; men privatized everything.  There’s a statistic that only 2% of people working in big business are women, and they have only 0.7% of capital.

Men privatized…why did it happen that way?  Because in the Soviet Union they became accustomed to acting that way, because of gender inequality.  A double standard: equality is declared, everything is good, advanced women workers are in the tribune, they make speeches about how everything is good, Tereshkova went into space…alone, by the way, in a group of men.  And in reality there was inequality.

But women are gradually moving forward.  Though it’s not easy for them, because this advancement and these stereotypes create a double burden for women—at home, and in the social sector, and in the commercial sphere.  Because men come home from work, pick up the newspaper, watch television, and in the best case scenario say “Can I help you with something?”  And why, “help me,” instead of you, for example, cooking dinner, and I’ll help.  A woman has to cook dinner.  These stereotypes are still alive.  It’s very hard…changing people’s consciousness is the hardest thing.  But it changes.  Opportunities are increasing…

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