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 for 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 about being prepared. I think I have such a personality. I would rather fight back than 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. Around the fire thousands of protesters are gathering, who already have been demonstrating against Yanukovych’s regime for many weeks. 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 started off as demonstrations a few months earlier, soon developed into huge protest camp at Maidan Freedom Square, located in the center of Kiev. Olena was present in the square from day one, together with many others from the LGTBI movement. The LGBTI community had a lot to lose with Yanukovych’s change of course, a course moving away from negotiations on an agreement with the EU, developing closer relations to Putin’s Russia. A draft law against “gay propaganda” had been presented to the president, together with laws that would make civil society organizations’ work very difficult.
Neither gender nor LGBTI issues were high on the agenda during the Euromaidan. Women were often used to staff the soup kitchen, while men patrolled the barricades. Olena was not comfortable with this. For her it made more sense to contribute to the security, rather than cooking, since she had a background as a wrestler. She and several others organized a separate women’s battalion, the Amazons, which participated in the work with securing the camp area. They gave training in self-defence and helped to change the perception of the role women should have on the barricades as well as in the development of a new and more democratic Ukraine.
“During those times, your clothes had to smell of smoke, for everyone to know you were on the right side”, Olena says when she talks about the days during the revolution.
She is kind of joking. But it is no doubt to anyone which side she is on, although it has been years. Her clothes would still smell of smoke and she is still demanding her place on the barricades, not behind the soup kettles.
A new political reality
It could not be taken for granted that the human rights of LGBTI persons would be placed on the political agenda after the revolution. There was a war going on in eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean Peninsula was annexed. Everyday life of Ukrainians was characterized by corruption and economic problems. Many of the groups that were active in the Maidan Square belong on the far-right side of politics. Thus, homophobia and transphobia was included in the new political reality. The opposition towards promoting the human rights of LGBTI persons was great, politically as well as in the population in general.
As the leader of the “Insight” organization, Olena has been at the forefront in the fight against abuses of LGBTI persons, but also for an open and democratic Ukraine where diversity is appreciated. They are working on changing the legislation and to be visible role models for all those who still do not dare to be open about their sexual identity. Even though they are met with shame and stigma, they continue to fight for equality, solidarity and pride for their community.
Her organization “Insight” is crucial in the work of documenting abuses committed by right-wing movements, amending legislation to prevent forced sterilization of transgender people, as well as to conducting training for doctors, psychologists and the police. They are also engaged in organizing cultural festivals, film screenings and exhibitions.
Ukraine’s right-wing extremism gaining ground
Many of the groups who fought at Maidan Square are representing major challenges. Right-wing groups are advancing, they are armed and have their influence on the police and as well as on politicians. The women’s movement, LGBTI persons and other minorities, are their main enemies, as in many other places in Europe.
“The right-wing extremists perceive women activists and LGBTI persons as a threat to traditional family values, calling the struggle for gender equality as “gender ideology”. In a world of traditional values, men are the ones in power, but where men and women are equal, this is not the case”, explains Olena.
“Insight” made a report that documents some of the atrocities right-wing extremist movements have committed in 2018 and 2019, and how politicians and the police have allowed the attacks to take place. In the report, they present heavy criticism on how a state-supported program funds projects aiming to develop Ukrainian patriotism, and by that, contributes to that the extreme-right movements are strengthened.
Visit her at home!
City Court, Kiev, March 12, 2018:
Olena and her lawyers are seated on the first bench in a crowded courtroom in Kiev. The room may be larger than it looks, but they are accompanied by a dozen of right-wing extremists.
The background for the indictment, is that one of the right-wing groups complained to the police about one of the banners Olena used while marking the International Women’s Day on March 8. One thousand persons showed up at this event, mostly women, and many from the LGBTI community. Soon they were joined by 200 right-wing extremists, who attacked them, using tear gas and batons. Seven people were injured. The police did little. As one of the organizers of the event, Olena was indicted, facing a prison sentence up to five years.
In a world of traditional values, men are the ones in power, but where men and women are equal, this is not the case
The court proceedings have barely started before it is obvious that they cannot be completed. The judge tells Olena that she should not leave the building because it may be too dangerous. The police did nothing. Olena and her lawyer must call a security company themselves, who gets her out of the room and transported into safety.
The court proceedings are postponed three days. International observers are present in the court room. The circumstances for the first hearing receive harsh criticism, so this time the court proceedings takes place as planned.
The judge drops the charges against Olena. But she is not acquitted outside the courtroom; hate groups are watching what she and other human rights defenders say and do, observes where they live and publish pictures of them on social media, urging people to “visit them at home”.
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