Irina Konchenkova, School of Equal Opportunities, Kiev

October 2009

Russian transcription by Olga Zelinska

Translation and editing by Sophie Pinkham

Irina Konchenkova: I am executive director of the international NGO “School of Equal Opportunities.”  It’s now one of the biggest organizations.  Nineteen regional branches in Ukraine.  We work very actively…[IK describes the plays that her students put on.]

Sophie Pinkham: What are the main messages of your plays?…What are you trying to teach?

IK: Everyone who sees them comes away with a very strong impression, because the plays are emotional and they show the essence of the problem.  For example, the play about human trafficking is an allegory: white birds flying to a southern border, searching for a good life, fall into a net.  The black birds catch them.  And they can’t tear themselves out.  It’s very tragic.  People simply weep when they see it.

Then there’s our play about illegal emigration of refugees.  Here we show the tragedy of a person who has to give up his native country, for various reasons.  And this also shows the essence of the problem and shows that Ukraine should become…we have a lot of…you can’t say a lot of racism, but there are examples of dislike towards people who live here, especially Africans and Asians, and Muslims.  In our plays we say that there can be lots of reasons why a person leaves their native country, and Ukraine should become a second native country for them.

Then we have a touching play about abortion.  I always say that I’m not against abortion, but I believe that when people have sex, young people, she should understand that this can result in a new life.  That they should just be very careful.  This play is very touching.  A child talks about how he’ll love his mommy and daddy.  Very emotionally.  And then suddenly the mother has an abortion.  The audience just sits and cries.

We also have tragic plays about HIV/AIDS and drug addiction.  Miniatures, 10-13 minutes long.

SP: And what’s the idea about drug addiction?

IK: [The play] is called “Angels of lightness and dark.”  Love.  A girl loves a young man.  He’s a drug addict.  Angels save her, and he dies.  Then it’s also about love, about HIV/AIDS and love.  It also ends with the girl finding out that she is sick with AIDS.  HIV/AIDS.  She got infected.  The plays have this slightly tragic note and they force people to simply think…

SP: Do you talk about contraception, condoms, things like that in your plays?

IK: You know, we have an information program.  The plays themselves last 10 minutes…there’s beautiful music played on records.  And they present the subject very briefly…

Apart from that, if we’re working with an audience, of course we don’t leave after 10 minutes.  We’ve developed an interactive program…So if, for instance, we’re dealing with HIV/AIDS, we work with the audience for 40 minutes or an hour.  We also have various interactive games…The plays are illustrations of what we’re talking about.  During the interactive portion we talk about everything.  What HIV is, what AIDS is, how to protect yourself, how it’s transmitted…

So we don’t gather an audience and suddenly show them a play about abortion or human trafficking and that’s it.  At the beginning there’s a big program that talks about what the problem of “human trafficking” is, how it’s global, how it affects Ukraine, what are the methods of recruitment, how people end up in these situations.

SP: Do the children write the plays themselves?

IK: We have a fantastic director who’s worked with us for many years…A creative girl, woman.  Who’s already become a friend.  We have several troupes.  There’s a “star” collective with which we go on tour and that performs at conferences on a very high level.  Our theater troupe is often invited when people are in need of a very quick illumination of a problem.  We performed in Ukrainian and Russian Parliament, and at international conferences.

SP: Can you talk about yourself?  How did you start working on these issues?  Why are you interested in this?

IK: I’m a teacher by profession.  I last worked as assistant principal in a school.  I lived in Riga.  When the Soviet Union fell, I moved to Ukraine because I had a lot of relatives here.  I returned to Ukraine and since I didn’t speak Ukrainian, I went to work in journalism.  I didn’t even try to go back to teaching.  I was accredited in Parliament and worked there for a Latvian newspaper…I got acquainted with Ukrainian society through the media.  I wrote, got to know the press…and that’s how I learned about the third sector.

Since I’ve always been very active, in 1999 we created another organization.  We won a USAID tender to start a summer school to train schoolgirls to work with their peers on child trafficking.  We led this school in 2000.  And work moved forward.

I continued working.  Now I don’t work anymore… For 5 years I haven’t worked anywhere except the organization.  But then I still worked.  This was on a volunteer basis.  It was very interesting.  Because our organization wasn’t for youth.  Our main goal was to participate in the realization of gender politics in Ukraine.  I was very concerned about this question.  We created a gender council in Parliament.  We lobbied for a gender law in Ukraine.  Our deputy, the one we worked with, he was the author of the first legislation on gender.

We had three EU projects that allowed us to bring in expertise on gender legislation.  To educate the large number of people on whom passage of the legislation depended…Yes, and the name [of the organization] itself—“The School of Equal Opportunities”–it’s a gender school.  It has no relation to school as it’s ordinarily understood.  It’s a school because here everyone learns.  Regardless of age, regardless of occupation.

In 2000, when we registered, the word “gender” still wasn’t heard.  And we had to explain to a lot of people what it meant.  So we changed the formulation.  “School of Equal Opportunities.”  In principle it’s the same thing.  We just abandoned the word “gender.”

SP: How did you explain what “gender” means?

IK: To whom?

SP: To children in school, and…

IK: Now everyone already knows.  Our last activity was to publish a book, “Gender and us.”  We work very closely with the Minister of Education.  We published the book with them…So today, in principle even children know what it is.  We have classes on gender equality in school.  Society is ready to accept it…The word is already heard on television.  People write about it with ease…But it took about 10 years of work to make it understood.  Our fundamental, key goal is to achieve harmony in society, gender balance…

SP: In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing women in Ukraine today, connected with gender?

IK: I’ll tell you, in principle, there are the same problems there always have been.  It’s just that now we talk about it, and it’s become more understood.  But the problems are the same.

There are no women in power…And it’s very hard for women to keep it together.  She has to be smarter than men.  She always has to prove that she can fulfill one obligation or another.  Of course, it’s hard for women today.  Men are in business.  Men are in power.  If you take our Ministers, I think there’s only one female Minister.  And of course women do all the grunt work, because the Minister, Deputy Ministers are men, and beyond that are women who have to stretch themselves thin to do all the work.

That’s why the situation isn’t getting better.  It’s very hard.  Very hard for women to get into power.  The political parties, the top fifth are mostly men.  There are very few women in Parliament.

The problem hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s just that now you can talk about it, now society is ready for the possibility of a woman coming in.  Because we, for example, when we had our first roundtables on gender questions for schools, people didn’t understand at all.  The directors, the leaders said, “Why are you forcing this [idea of] gender on us…everything is fine here.  And if something isn’t fine, let them deal with it.  Thank God, in school everything is good.”  Complete lack of understanding.

Take the questionnaires we’re collecting now.  Of course you see an understanding of what gender is, the meaning of gender in education.  Even if you take the last Ministerial order, it’s clear that his orders were formulated with expertise on gender approaches.  Because everything here is oriented around men.  The male gender [in grammar] is used whether you’re talking about a girl or a boy.  Even though it’s almost exclusively women who work in schools.  So there’s a distortion.  There are always these problems.  And it’s hard for women.

According to law it’s already possible, for instance, for men to go on paternity leave.  But very, very few use this law.  Stereotypes play a very big role in society.

SP: Do you think that women’s position in society is changing?

IK: No, of course it’s changing.  Maybe not the way we’d want it to…in ten years we’ve reached the entrance of gender politics into society, a lot has changed.

Our Prime Minister is a woman.  What she’s like is another question.  But in the past that was unimaginable.  Now we accept it as absolutely normal that maybe the President will be a woman…Women are now appearing in many fields where there used to be almost none.  But of course, just like before it’s very hard to get in, it’s hard for women to get money.  But that problem isn’t unique to Ukraine.

We’ll hope that the situation will change, because now everything is being said out loud.  If everyone talks about it, parties will take women whether they want to or not.  Whether you like it or not, somewhere something is changing somehow, because the whole world is talking about it, and men will allow women to enter, somehow, into certain fields.  Journalists write a lot about it.  When we presented our manual there was a lot of press attention.  We had a training in the House and the hall was full.  There were lots of people standing.  There was a lot of interest.  I think that if we had published this book six years ago, maybe we would have had just curious people who wanted to find out what “gender” was.

SP: And what was the response?  What did they write in the papers?

IK: The journalists were fine.  We read articles about our book, saying that there’s a book, there’s a plan of work in schools.  It was fine.  It’s not that we invented some new thing.  There’s already a reasonable reaction to this terminology, to all this…

Then, we—not just our organization, other NGOs as well—led loads of different trainings for government officials.  We always have a gender program going in Parliament.  Work with deputies.  UNDP has a big project in Ukraine now on gender.  That is, there are so many trainings, for every layer [of the population].  Starting with village women who have gender agriculture projects.  Very interesting.  Even in the village, men know what “gender” means.  You probably know about these interesting projects where they give someone a cow under the condition that you undergo training on gender.  The family has to go and learn about it.  And the 16 days against gender-based violence—there are already actions going on everywhere.  Everyone already knows about it.  Now, it seems to me that it’s hard to find a person who wouldn’t know what the word “gender” meant.  Of course, sometimes the meaning is confused.  But at least the word is said and no one is particularly surprised.

SP: In America there’s sometimes a very negative reaction to the idea of gender.  Some people say, “Oh, what an awful feminist, what are they doing.”  Do you have that here, or not anymore?

IK: Feminism and gender balance are simply completely different things.  I, for example, am not a feminist.  Absolutely.  So you simply have to make a clear definition of where the understanding of gender ends, and feminism begins.  I don’t know.  I’m against extremism in everything.  I’m for harmony.  So I don’t know.

I was in Poland recently.  I went there about a project we had to implement with Polish partners, to work with perpetrators of domestic violence.  In Ukraine there’s just been an amendment to the law on domestic violence…it provides for obligatory work with perpetrators.  So now that question is being studied.  The experience of other countries where it’s been dealt with more.  And we also have to have an international project with the Polish and the Germans.

From the Polish side, I have partners who are exactly those sort of militant feminists.  And it’s very difficult for me [to deal] with them.  Because they have no grey area; black and white, that’s all.  That always scares me.  And I understand in principle that if gender policies were realized and done cleverly, there would be loads of advantages for men.  Because today we have certain stereotypes: men don’t live till retirement or die as soon as they’ve retired.  There’s this burden—the man is the provider, he’s responsible, he can’t get sick, he has to be macho, take all of life’s problems on himself.  Of course it’s very difficult, so there are very few elderly men.  In general, Ukrainian life expectancy is much lower than in developed European countries.

And now our men actively lose their voice because, in divorce trials, as a rule, whatever the father is like, the child stays with the mother.  That’s the stereotype.  The mother could be ten times worse than the father—irresponsible, inattentive to the child, with loads of vices; the father could be fantastic.  But the father can’t get the child.  So now a movement is beginning to fight discrimination against fathers.  They’ve created an organization called “Tatusiv”—“tato” means father in Ukrainian.  “Responsible fathers.”  And they want society to pay attention to the fact that sometimes even fathers are fine.  Fathers aren’t always scoundrels.  But stereotypes are so strong that children still stay with their mothers.

There are lots of other examples like that.  In general, for example, if you take the contemporary [economic] crisis that’s affected many countries.  I read an analysis of the situation in different countries.  It said that in places with a gender-balanced government, where there’s real gender harmony in society, even the crisis didn’t cause such a hurricane.  Those countries suffered less from the crisis.  I’ve already read lots of interesting articles like that.  I think it’s natural.  Because when there are women in the government, they force men to think about the future.  By nature, men are more impetuous. It’s not for nothing to talk all the time about how any budget should be gender-balanced.  That is, not the national budget but every budget: the regional budget, city budget, village budget.  In places where people really pay attention to this, the budgets are fine and people live fine.  And for us, of course, it’s just impossible to have a gender-balanced budget.

We had projects on gender-balanced budgets and some regions agreed to take part.  Authorities on the level of the mayor, the governor took part…there were very few regions, but they were deeply impressed with the understanding of why this is important, what it means, what should be the components of this budget…But other countries already have it.  Slowly, slowly…

SP: And what exactly does it mean when a budget is [gender-balanced]?

IK: There are specific requirements…international standards.  It has to be put together with statisticians, economists, who tell you how many women there are in an oblast or a region, how many disabled people, how many elderly people…It doesn’t have to be an abstract budget that’s simply based on the number of people…it should account for the number of women.

We already have an obligatory gender advisor in every Ministry.  How they work, how they understand their function is another question, but in principle they exist.  So something’s happening, somehow.

SP: What do you think about how [Prime Minister Yulia] Timoshenko uses the idea of gender in her work?

IK: She doesn’t use it at all.

SP: Not at all?  But even stereotypes.  I find it interesting just to look at her.  Her dresses, her hair…What do you think?

IK: I’ll tell you, I always support her, even if it’s just because she’s a woman.  It’s impressive to me that there are women in government.  But unfortunately, she’s an example of a woman who’s completely gender insensitive.  She’s not a gender woman.  [IK uses “gender” as an adjective.]

She wants to show that she’s a man.  Apart from her outfits, which are fantastic, she always demonstrates a masculine style of behavior.  She surrounds herself with men.  She has very few women [working with her].  She does not convey the idea of gender.  She doesn’t even talk about it.  Whatever is inherent in women, she either doesn’t demonstrate or actively rejects it, all in a calculated way.  She behaves like a man.  Unfortunately…I think that she has image consultants working for her.  It’s important to her, she likes it, she works with designers.  They design dresses for her.  Thank God she dresses the way she does.  You look at her, she’s a very beautiful woman.  But she needs to be more feminine.  And to understand that more women need to come [into the government].  She doesn’t support women, either in word or in deed.

SP: And why is she so popular?

IK: I think that she’s a woman with enormous charisma.  She has a real gift for attracting people’s attention and getting authority.  She speaks wonderfully.  She’s worked a lot on herself…she has a gift for convincing people.  Then take her braid—it’s understood that it’s not her own braid and that if we took her picture ten years or eight years ago, she had a completely different image.  But someone told her she should have a braid, and I remember when she appeared with the braid…It wasn’t so long ago that the universal opinion was that women could have nothing to do with politics.

Polls showed that people weren’t waiting for a woman, society didn’t want to see her, society was completely unprepared, and if a woman appeared in politics, that she would be an object of laughter.  They thought of some nicknames for her right away and treated her with mistrust, there were simply prejudices, and society took it in a very negative way…

Yulia completely turned this around.  They worked very subtly, the people who dealt with her image–how she should be, what she should say.  And her tremendous accomplishment—she simply achieved the impossible—was when she conquered western Ukraine.  She didn’t speak Ukrainian at all.  She couldn’t say a single word correctly.  She mispronounced words.  She was a Dnepropetrovsk businesswoman who was, as everyone knew, the friend and partner of Lazarenko.  There was a very negative attitude towards her.  If you think about all her baggage, you realize that she really did the impossible.

She learned to speak excellent Ukrainian.  She forced western Ukraine to love her.  They support her, she has all of western Ukraine on her side.  Of course that’s thanks to her external appearance, because everyone sees in her a simple Ukrainian girl, speaking their own language, wearing a braid.  Of course all women fell in love with her.  Men fell in love with her.  I don’t know any other politician who could have come from Donetsk or Dnepropetrovsk and conquered all of western Ukraine.  She did it.  I myself listen to her, when you’re somewhere she’s speaking in person, you completely fall under her influence.  She speaks wonderfully…


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