This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades
“It’s not about being physically strong, but to be prepared. I think I have such a personality. I would rather fight back than to be afraid and hide”, says human rights advocate and feminist Olena Shevchenko, from the LGBTIQ organization, Insight.
The amazons of Kyiv
Maidan Square, Kiev, February 2014:
Black smoke oozes out of oil barrels full of firewood, and whatever else burns. Around this, circle thousands of protesters, that have been demonstrating against Yanukovych’s regime for many weeks already. Youngsters, grandmothers, grandchildren and men with balaclavas, gather around the heat. Some with a baton in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
What had begun as demonstrations, a few months earlier, quickly became a huge protest camp at Maidan Freedom Square, in the center of Kiev. Olena was in the square from day one, along with many others from the lgbti movement. Queer Ukrainians had a lot to lose, with Yanukovych’s change of course. A course that began to move away from negotiations on an agreement with the EU, and developing closer relations to Putin’s Russia. A draft law against “gay propaganda” was clearly on the president’s table, along with laws that would make civil society organizations’ work very difficult.
Women or LGBTI issues were not high on the agenda during the Euromaidan. Women were often used to staff the soup kitchen, while men patrolled the barricades. For Olena, this sounded bizarre. With a background as a freelancer, it made more sense for her to contribute to safety rather than cooking. She and several others organized a separate women’s battalion, the Amazon, which took its part in the work of securing the space. They gave training in self-defense and helped to change the perception of the role women should have both on the barricades and in the development of a new and more democratic Ukraine.
“ There was a period where if your clothes didn’t smell of smoke, you were on the wrong side,” Olena says when she talks about the revolution afterwards.
She jokes, in a way. But at the same time, the years that have passed have shown that Olena knows which side she is on. Her clothes still smell of bonfires and she still demands her place on the barricades, not behind the soup kettles.
A new political reality
After the revolution, it was not a matter of course that the rights of LGBT people would be placed on the political agenda. There was war in eastern Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula was annexed. Corruption and economic problems characterized the everyday lives of the Ukrainian people. Many of the groups that were active in the Maidan Square belonged to the far right, and homophobia and transphobia, etc., joined the new political everyday life. The opposition to prioritizing the minority situation was great, both politically and among the majority of people.
As the leader of the “Insight” organization, Olena has been at the forefront in the fight against abuses of LGBT people, but also for an open and democratic Ukraine that appreciates diversity. They are working to change legislation and to be visible role models for all those who still do not dare to come out. Even though they face shame and self-hatred, they continue to fight towards equality, solidarity and pride.
Insight is crucial when it comes to gathering evidence of abuses committed by right-wing movements, amending legislation to prevent forced sterilization of transgender people, training doctors, psychologists and police. They are also active in building a cultural festival, film screenings and exhibitions.
Ukraine’s right-wing extremism on the march
Many of those who fought at Maidan Square are facing major challenges. Right-wing groups are advancing, they have weapons and influence on police and politicians. Like so many other places in Europe, the women’s movement and other minorities, are considered to be among the main enemies.
“The right-wing extremists, view women activists and skeptics as a threat to traditional family values, calling the struggle for gender equality a “ gender ideology ”. In a world of traditional values, men are the ones in power, but in a world where men and women are equal, this is not the case”, explains Olena.
This year Insight have produced a report that deals with some of the atrocities these right-wing extremists movements are responsible for, and about how politicians and the police makes the attacks possible. They come with powerful critique of how a government program that supports projects that will contribute to the development of Ukrainian patriotism, contributes to the extreme-right movements strengthened.
Visit her at home!
City Court, Kiev, March 12, 2018:
Olena and her lawyers have been seated on the first bench in a crowded courtroom in Kiev. Maybe it is bigger than it looks, but they are joined by dozens of right-wing extremists.
The reason for the indictment, is that a right-wing group complained to the police about one of the banners she used while marking International Women’s Day on March 8. During this event a thousand people showed up, most women, many from the LGBT community. Soon they were joined by 200 right-wing extremists, who attacked them using tear gas and impact weapons. Seven people were injured. The police did little. Olena was one of the organizers of this event and thus the one sitting with the indictment, where the sentence was five years.
In a world of traditional values, men are the ones in power, but in a world where men and women are equal, this is not the case
The court proceedings are barely sufficient to begin before it is obvious that it cannot be completed. The judge tells Olena that she should not leave the building because it may be too dangerous. The police do nothing. Olena and the lawyer must call a security company themselves, to get her out of the room and transported to safety.
The court proceedings are postponed for three days. International observers are present in the hall, and criticism of the circumstances at first hearing has been harsh, so this time the court proceedings can proceed as planned.
The indictment is waived in the court. But outside the courtroom, the hate groups are watching what she and other activists do, what they say and where they live. Social media groups reproducing images of human rights defenders urged to, “visit them at home”.
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