One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we spoke to people volunteering and working for one of ActionAid’s partners, Insight. Insight is a Ukrainian human rights public organization that brings together the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups.
“I was just a completely happy person before the war. I had my dream job – a social teacher at a school for children with special educational needs. I had a very happy life.”
Veronika, who is now a volunteer for Insight, worked in a special educational needs school before her hometown was invaded. She spoke to us about how difficult it was in the first months of the war and how life has changed. She feels like her work with Insight has made her “more significant” and that it has helped her to feel part of something big, working every day with women to help them overcome challenges.
A year ago, when the invasion started, Veronika says her first thoughts were not of her own safety but of the children at her school. In the first week, Veronika and her family stayed in their flat, going down to the apartment block’s basement every day. However, with 30 people in a space of around 2X2m, it wasn’t something they could continue to do.
“When I woke up on 24 February, the first question was not about my safety, but of the children at the school. The city was under constant shelling. The planes were flying all the time. You just see everything in the smoke, in the black smoke, because there will be constant bombing there.”
In times of crisis, like war, women and girls face a much higher risk of gender-based violence, including domestic violence. Veronika told us how she has been asked by women for help to get out of difficult situations with their husbands.
“Being on the ninth floor, we could see airplanes above us. We saw missiles above us. And we went to school. At that time, we thought that it was the best option for us because there is access to food there, there are people there, there are organisations that help and bring food, and we believed that that will save us. But unfortunately, not much.”
After her family fled to Kharkiv, her daughter developed a toothache. With medicines and everything else being in short supply, they moved to Lviv where they spent the last of their money on a dentist to relieve their child. Organizations helped the family with food. Later, Veronika discovered Women’s March and Insight, finding both a safe space and a sense of purpose and empowerment.
“Both Insight and the Women’s March are my mental health. They lifted me off my knees. I went there every day, and there were people who told me: “Veronika, this is not a job. Why are you coming here [every day]?” I realised why I was doing it – I came there whenever I needed. It’s just a very cool community, you don’t hear the things like “The woman’s place is at home” and “Why you are not a housewife, why don’t you cook at home?” “Why is your husband staying with the child?” I have never been asked [these questions]. And that’s cool.”
By volunteering with Insight, Veronika has found purpose, and her husband is now looking after their child while she works, something that feels new and powerful to her.
“I am here, and I am helping. It inspires me every day. I know that we are something more. Not just a woman who has to raise a child and cook at home for my husband’s meals. I am a woman who can help, who wants to help, who wants to be involved in something big – a big cool thing.”
In finding this new way of life, Veronika has found strength.
“We have something to live for. We have something to be happy about, because we lost a lot, but we gained a lot, a lot. I never understood before that I am Ukrainian and that I am Ukrainian myself. But now I know this and now I tell everyone: Girls, we are so strong. We can do anything now.”
Veronika told us how everything has changed, and in the year since the invasion began, her husband has become a feminist. She explained how he told sexist jokes every day, but now he helps with the efforts at Insight; he “now realizes that a woman is much more.”
“I said at the beginning that I was very happy before the war, and I spent six months looking for my happiness, because I realized that only my location had changed. The happiness is inside.”