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Interview: “The war in Ukraine may be changing the women’s movement, but it’s not stopping it”

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Adapted from a blog post by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women

Olesia Bondar, Director of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF) spoke to the UN Trust Fund on how the current crisis is affecting Ukrainian women and girls, and the key role of civil society and women’s rights organizations play in the context of humanitarian and intersecting crises.

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, managed by UN Women, remains committed to supporting civil society and women’s rights organizations in crisis, while first and foremost prioritizing their safety. As part of its practice in crisis context, the UN Trust Fund is working to support current and past grantee organizations who are continuing to work for women and girl survivors of violence amidst the current crisis. Among them, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund has been transforming its operations to meet the needs of local feminist networks and coalitions to reach women and girls.

How is the escalation of conflict affecting women and girls? What are you seeing as an emerging phenomenon?

Women and girls were forced to leave their homes and to face the risks of being killed, raped, involved in human trafficking, wounded or infected on the way of evacuation. Those women and girls who decided to stay at home or in the bomb shelters faced the same challenges.

Numerous women and girls who have managed to survive are in the constant search for accommodation and means for living, taking care of children, elderly relatives and family members with disabilities. Lots of them lost opportunities to work and earn money. Many still need to heal from physical and psychological trauma.

Many children have been sent to live with elderly relatives, where their parents assumed as safer places while they themselves stayed to work. Sixteen-year-old Liza did not speak after being evacuated from Izium. When she finally found the strength to speak, she shared that her mother was in Odesa. Liza had not been sleeping for weeks: she was afraid she would die in her sleep, never having hugged her mother.

What role are women’s rights organizations playing in the evolving crisis?

The war in Ukraine may be changing the women’s/feminist movement, but it’s not stopping it. On the contrary, we’re translating most of our movement-development initiatives into new formats.

One of the organizations supported by UWF whose focus was single mothers and mothers with multiple children has stayed in the war zone in Donetsk Oblast to rescue the wounded, women with disabilities and other women and girls with limited mobility.

The leader of the organization, a mother of four children, together with other members of the volunteer group, was transporting people when her car was hit by targeted shelling. Nevertheless, she continued to drive until she lost consciousness.

She said: "It was important for me to get behind the wheel and show everyone that a woman does not succumb to fear, that a woman keeps it all operating. It lifts the spirits of other women and gives encouragement to men.”

Currently, she continues to coordinate the organization’s work from the hospital. She also shared that some of the rescued mothers have decided to stay with the organization to help rescue others who had been sleep and food deprived.

Additionally, women’s rights organizations and human rights defenders are making sure that incidents of hostilities are being documented.

How has UWF supporting women’s rights organizations, and what does your organization need at this time?

UWF is currently helping women’s/feminist organizations to implement effective and systematic solutions such as:

  • collecting and distributing humanitarian aid where it is most needed and supplying women who serve in the armed and defense forces;
  • evacuating people and creating shelters;
  • coordinating the transit of displaced people, volunteers and authorities;
  • recording crimes;
  • organizing medical and psychological support for victims and witnesses of military aggression; and
  • creating systems to collect and transmit information that will save lives and enable communities to host displaced people.

On 28 February, UWF announced a grant competition in response to the crisis caused by the Russian Federation’s military incursions into Ukraine. These grants are helping non-governmental women’s/feminist organizations respond to urgent humanitarian issues, with a focus on the needs of vulnerable women and girls.

Over the next month, UWF will continue to provide rapid response grants for critical humanitarian challenges. We are also preparing institutional support grants for women’s/feminist organizations, as well as grants to strengthen organizational networks and to form alliances with organizations from other countries. Every day we seek and implement solutions that help women and girls overcome the challenges of war and mitigate its impact on their future. The UWF is also working on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan, translating it into military terms.

We encourage those individuals and organizations who are willing to help should resource women’s and feminist organizations timely and invent system solutions for crisis.

UN Women* shares the UN Secretary-General’s concern for the safety and wellbeing of all civilians in Ukraine who have already suffered from so much death, destruction and displacement, especially women and girls as they often are uniquely and disproportionally affected in conflicts.*

*UN Women is working to support women’s priority needs, including access to information, safety and security, basic necessities, accommodation and livelihoods. Through a rapid gender assessment, UN Women is ensuring up-to-date data and analysis on the gender dynamics of the war and its impacts. In Moldova and Ukraine, we are supporting women’s civil society organizations that support war-affected populations as well as essential services for refugee women and girls. *