Meet a 'womanitarian': Olena - supporting LGBTQ+ rights in Ukraine


25 August 2023


To mark World Humanitarian Day this August, we are celebrating our partners around the world who are working to raise the voice of women and girls in humanitarian response. Here, CARE's Senior Advisor Helen Pankhurst speaks to Olena Shevchenko. Olena runs Insight, an NGO which supports women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in Ukraine.

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Helen: Could you tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to be such a strong campaigner and humanitarian?

Olena: Honestly, I don't remember a specific time. It was a natural process. My identity and being part of a vulnerable community played a crucial role. I remember from my childhood and school, those experiences pushed me to this idea that I needed to find something in my life which will be meaningful. And this includes fighting for rights.

This life, it comes with consequences. You will have a more interesting life. But it also comes with this endless fight with different parts of society.

So it means choosing a life, knowing that every day you need to fight for something, for recognition, for the rights, against violence, against discrimination, telling people just basic things all the time. Trying to somehow influence this societal understanding of your identity, your choice.

These personal experiences are so important. There are ways in which the current generation of women and girls have opportunities that didn't exist before, but then the social norms come back in again.

It’s true, and I'm that person who always was interested in different types of sports. How we compare these things is important. It's easier than before, but it’s not how it should be. It's not without discrimination, it's not about without prejudice. It's still there.

It's just a little bit better. And that's why we always need to remind ourselves not to say 'we achieved everything, this is equality'. It's not. It just, sometimes you feel it's a bit better.

You said that the big change for you was probably at university when you really realised how important these issues are and central to what you wanted to do. Can you talk me through that?

At university, you meet new people and there’s spaces for the students to organise themselves. So that was a chance for me to be included in this kind of volunteering. But at that time we never called it volunteering – I’d never heard this word. It was about being part of something fun.

At this time, I became part of the Women's Network, a small feminist lesbian organisation. For me it was like, wow, here’s a circle of people who are talking about interesting things, who are also lesbians.

What type of activism did you get involved in and what are your reflections on what's worked well and what hasn’t?

Sometimes if I reflect on that period of life, I feel like I didn’t have a choice. Nobody was ready to say anything openly about LGBTQI issues. We didn’t have people coming out. For instance, no one wanted to go on TV and speak out against the draft law, which prohibited LGBTQI people from being teachers. So I remember that case, for instance, and it was me who said I will go because nobody else can.

Step by step, people started to help organise, not openly but in closed ways. We organised the first open exhibition about LGBTQI people. It was hard to do it because of the violence, because of the attacks from different conservative groups. For that time, it was revolutionary. You see your perception can change over time. Now I see it as a political activism, as a campaign. But at that time, to me, we just organised an event.

The transition from campaigning to humanitarian work (that Insight has gone through), how has that changed how you do things?

Before the conflict, we did mostly human rights work. I consider myself a human rights defender. But it's always about humans, and on the humanitarian side, that's even stronger.

With humanitarian work, you see the person, you see the face. It is such an empowering thing.

NGOs are operating in a global context where funding comes for certain things in certain ways, sometimes balancing practical support and strategic interests. How do you navigate that?

We never stopped to do the human rights work, we just developed another sphere of work (humanitarian). But it doesn't mean we are not investing in human rights. When the war broke out, we ran a campaign on unbreakable women. We covered single mothers, women of different ages, women with disabilities.

We showed the normal women; for instance, the woman who works in the post office. She never stopped. During the shelling, during the sirens, she kept working. People will say she's not a hero but I think she is. That's why we launched this campaign.

And it was so popular to show normal, regular women who are the heroes of this war.

As we’re celebrating World Humanitarian Day, what changes would you like to see in the humanitarian sector?

To be more practical. You need to start from the local context in every intervention, not only in Ukraine. You need to ask people in that context what they need. This is so basic. They know what they need. Don't put all your regulations and instruments on them, saying that they work in some other context. It's not the right approach.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing with CARE?

With CARE, we started the last year of our humanitarian programmes, so they are not the only partner or donor. I prefer to call our donors partners because that's how we view the relationship. So it's humanitarian, it’s that direct support. But we are also hopefully starting another programme on gender equality, and a campaign on the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence.

And I hope we will increase and deepen our cooperation in this value-based approach, because we want to do this work.

What are your hopes for the future? What are your plans?

My plans are just the same. I'm not leaving Ukraine. I'm staying and I'm so happy that my team is staying here too.

We want to continue to help people. We’re ready to take on the responsibility and do the job. This is something which drives me to keep going.

I'm not tired, I'm encouraged to do other things. Even in such a huge crisis, in very awful situation, there are windows of opportunity. This is the moment to change your society, so don't waste it.

Why CARE is shining a light on the role of women in humanitarian response

When food is short, women and girls eat last, and least. During humanitarian emergencies, they have less access to life-saving maternal health services and are at much greater risk of sexual violence. And, according to the UN, women’s lack of participation in humanitarian response ‘severely limits our effectiveness’. Yet local women’s organisations are not consulted in nearly half of all humanitarian responses and only 1.2% of direct humanitarian assistance funding went to local and national actors in 2021.

This situation is particularly pertinent in Ukraine, where the ongoing conflict has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis and an estimated 17.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite being at the forefront of the response, women and women-led organisations experience significant barriers to meaningful participation in both UN and government-led humanitarian coordination and decision-making, and to accessing quality funding and support.

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