Ukraine’s heroines: Women leaders provide critical services amid catastrophic war
Ukrainian women who worked on Winrock's first counter-trafficking and women's empowerment projects are networking and continuing to protect the vulnerable.
The destruction, danger and loss of life in Ukraine today is too vast to measure, but statistics give some sense of scope. One year into Russia’s expanded war against Ukraine, the U.N. is reporting 18 million people in need and 21,793 civilian casualties, including 8,173 civilian deaths – numbers that the U.N. itself acknowledges represent only a fraction of the true toll. Millions of Ukrainians have fled missile and artillery barrages, drone and tank attacks, and advancing Russian soldiers and mercenaries, many of whom are recently released convicts. Already, more than 13 million people have left their homes, an estimated 90% of whom are women and children. That’s one in every three Ukrainians.
As they join in the largest mass migration in Europe since World War II, their vulnerability to exploitation, including trafficking and forced labor has risen rapidly. Ukrainian women and children must urgently evaluate offers of transport, shelter, or other help, often from strangers, against the danger of being abused, manipulated or exploited.
As the risks to internally displaced people and refugees multiply, vary and change, a home-grown coalition of trusted women’s advocates and counter-trafficking leaders across the country has responded. This network of dedicated Ukrainian women is collaborating and problem solving to support and protect those most in need. They distribute humanitarian supplies, provide crucial information about safe havens and trustworthy services, and connect refugees and displaced people to vital emergency assistance, health care, legal and logistical support.
The life-preserving work and determination of these Ukrainian heroines in the midst of the brutal invasion of their country by a foreign power is now capturing international attention. While these women have been protecting the most vulnerable in Ukraine for decades, the war caused them to expand their services overnight ─ and has brought the spotlight to them and their incredible organizations.
Five Ukrainian women leaders, each involved with women’s centers in different parts of Ukraine, and two of whom participated in a USAID-funded counter-trafficking project previously led by Winrock International in Ukraine, recently received 2022 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington, D.C. In addition to that quintet, another Ukrainian woman civil society leader who worked with Winrock, Marta Chumalo, received Sweden’s prestigious Olof Palme Prize 2023, awarded previously to the likes of Hanan Ashwari, Kofi Annan, and Vaclav Havel.
And at a third event in late 2022, a former member of USAID’s Women’s Economic Empowerment project from Ukraine, Natalia Karbowska, along with Kateryna Levchenko, founder of the Ukrainian branch of an international women’s organization now serving as Ukraine’s commissioner for gender equality policy, both received 2022 Hillary Rodham Clinton Awards, bestowed upon them directly by the former first lady, secretary of state, and senator at Georgetown University.
“They pioneered services for survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking,” former U.S. Ambassador Melanne Verveer said at the Vital Voices Awards, held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “But on February 24  their world was turned upside down… And while the international community slowly rallied, our honorees immediately organized with determination. They formed a powerful coalition across regions. In the east, Olena Morgun and Antonina Shostak. And in the west, Nina Sabadosh, Halyna Kravets and Lyubov Maxymovych. Together, they organized an emergency effort to assist thousands of displaced women and children.
“They didn’t wait for help to arrive. They led the charge.”
Morgun and Maxymovych, along with Chumalo, Karbowska, and Levchenko, all were involved in Winrock projects that countered gender-based violence and human trafficking, and supported women’s economic empowerment. These were among the first counter-trafficking projects ever funded by the U.S. government, and were implemented by Winrock in Ukraine between 1998 and 2004. Since then, building on many lessons from Ukraine and other former Soviet Union republics, Winrock has become the leading global counter-trafficking implementer, working to combat modern slavery in all its forms, including forced labor, sex trafficking, the worst forms of child labor, and other exploitative practices.
While these women are now receiving high-level recognition, many other women who worked directly with or partnered Winrock in other places in Ukraine and abroad are also making a difference.
Currently, Winrock implements USAID Asia CTIP , with related projects in Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and across Central Asia. Winrock also implements a trafficking survivor-support activity funded by the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency and a U.S. Department of State-funded Program to End Modern Slavery project, which address trafficking risks related to climate-caused migration, both in Bangladesh.
A major part of Winrock’s approach to fighting trafficking focuses on reducing stakeholder fragmentation. Beginning with implementation of the first counter-trafficking project in Ukraine, Winrock recognized that achieving and sustaining positive outcomes depends in large part on the continued interconnectedness of key actors, including women’s advocacy and services groups. In programs formerly administered in Ukraine and currently underway today in more than 10 countries around the world, Winrock seeks to strengthen relationships and create shared value between and among government, civil society organizations and the private sector to scale up good practices.
CTIP in Ukraine
Back in 2000, Eleanor Valentine led Winrock’s Trafficking Prevention Project from an office in Kyiv.
Now based in Almaty as chief of party of Winrock’s five-year, USAID-funded Safe Migration in Central Asia project, Valentine said one of the main goals of TPP was to build the capacity of and collaboration between the somewhat isolated and under-resourced Ukrainian women’s organizations operating across the country at the time.
Leaders and program staff from the women’s groups who connected through the Winrock projects all shared the desire to become better organized and improve outreach and service delivery; they also recognized the benefits of sharing knowledge and learning from each other to improve their effectiveness and to engage the government of the (then) newly independent Ukraine, along with potential partners and funders.
“Ukraine at that time was going through a transition,” Valentine said, adding that in that first decade of independence, Ukraine “was a place where a lot of nonprofits were in their nascent stages of ‘forming and storming’ while trying to meet the requirements of a ‘norming’ of the civic space with very new requirements. We worked together with these women-led NGOs to help channel their creativity and energy to effectively address the very complex issues of trafficking in persons and within a very short time, they were ‘performing’ beyond expectations – and they are still performing with that level of dedication and commitment, now under even more challenging circumstances.”
“Ukraine has been a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking since the early 1990s. Men, women, and children are trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and begging and sexual and other forms of exploitation. The main countries of destination for trafficked Ukrainians have been the Russian Federation, Poland, and Turkey, as well as internal human trafficking within Ukraine. The problem has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Even before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was already facing an increase in the scale of human trafficking caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing displacement from conflict-affected eastern Ukraine and occupied Crimea. The population is extremely vulnerable, an issue severely exacerbated by Russia’s invasion and the need for millions of people to leave their homes for safety in Ukraine and abroad. Fraudulent labor intermediaries/recruiters may take advantage of the war to exploit at-risk people.”Excerpt from USAID Fact Sheet on TIP in Ukraine
Today, work conducted by the network of women’s advocacy groups that Winrock helped to strengthen in Ukraine has never been more critical. Though none of the leaders of the Women for Women centers supported more than two decades ago by Winrock could have predicted that neighboring Russia would invade their beloved homeland, their ability to mobilize fast, collaborate closely and respond powerfully amidst a savage war is a testament to work begun years earlier.
Women for Women network activates
Lyubov Maxymovych, the leader of Centre Women’s Perspectives in Lviv, near the country’s western border with Poland, helped to get things going.
As the first blasts from Russian bombs began wreaking death and destruction in Odessa, Dnipro, Mariupol and Kramatorsk in February of 2022, Maxymovych began working the phones.
“I realized physically I can’t help everyone alone,” she says in a video clip broadcast at the Vital Voices ceremony. “That night I started calling all my colleagues. We developed a mutual aid system, sharing each other’s resources to help these people. But every day there were more people arriving. Everything was in short supply and locals [were] bringing clothes, food, supplies, anything they could. The support from my colleagues in other regions was amazing.
“The war has united us to support each other.”
Maxymovych started by contacting old friends and colleagues, including Olena Morgun, located far to the east in Dnipro. Morgun, who had also been a partner in TPP, is now the chairwoman of the board of directors of Promin Dnipro. Since first linking with Winrock more than 20 years ago, Morgun has continued to focus on and expand trafficking prevention and programs, and is now working with the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency, to provide relief and other support to vulnerable and conflict-displaced Ukrainian women livelihoods options, employment training, and skills to start and maintain small businesses.
When Winrock launched TPP, Ukrainian NGOs and nonprofits faced challenges finding funding, building organizational capacity, gaining traction with Ukraine’s new government, and obtaining the resources and training they needed to make an impact. Though Maxymovych and Morgun worked at separate organizations, they connected through Winrock’s activities to share information, participate in trainings, develop work plans and collaborate while learning how to strengthen their organizations to better help vulnerable women. Leaders met with management and staff of other women’s organizations in other parts of the country.
Winrock helped establish a network of Women for Women centers in partnership with local women’s groups. These centers have long provided economic and crisis prevention assistance to vulnerable groups, with the goal of decreasing their susceptibility to accepting offers of employment abroad, as well as providing assistance to returning survivors of trafficking. The network began with centers in Dnipropetrvosk, Donetsk, and Lviv, and expanded to include four more centers in Chernivtsi, Kherson, Rivne, and Zhytomyr in 2000.
As the women’s groups coalesced and connected with government, bilateral and multilateral institutions, they catalyzed both community and policy-level action for change to better support trafficking survivors, helping to establish what Vital Voices has described as “a successful national model for counter-trafficking in Ukraine. Because of the efforts of women-led NGOs, in 1998 Ukraine became one of the first Eastern European countries to adopt comprehensive legislation on trafficking and to establish a national system to support survivors.”
“Collaborating with some of these women and other Winrock programs’ alumni in Ukraine is one of the key reasons why I joined the organization in 2009,” said Olga DiPretoro, a technical advisor on Winrock’s Human Rights, Education and Empowerment team who has decades of experience implementing and leading counter-trafficking projects, including in her native Ukraine.
“I was inspired by their leadership, influence within communities they serve, agility in providing services, and outspoken rights advocacy,” DiPretoro said. “They often mentioned that Winrock’s women’s leadership and organizational development interventions were critical to the evolution of their organizations, which have been productively operating for over two decades. Winrock essentially jumpstarted the women’s movement in Ukraine and supported these leaders with management and advocacy skills as well as network development, including through participation in the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. These leaders and their organizations were also pioneers in community-based initiatives to prevent human trafficking and multi-disciplinary counter-trafficking responses that rely on collaboration of criminal justice and social protection agencies, which is now a standard across the globe. It has been humbling to follow these women and their organizations over the years and I hope we meet for a Winrock alumni summit one day after the war is over.”
Uniting for Ukraine
Today, a full year into Russia’s invasion and occupation, the five leaders are still working together, as well as with many others, to get things done. Other leaders formerly associated with Winrock projects also continue to make enormous contributions in Ukraine.
Katerina Levchenko, who now serves as the Ukrainian government’s gender equality policy expert, said she is currently focused on ensuring that women can and will be fully involved in any efforts to reestablish peace and begin rebuilding Ukraine.
Natalia Karbowska, another Clinton award recipient — and a former Winrock staff member on the USAID Women’s Economic Empowerment Project — currently serves as director of strategic development at the Ukrainian Women’s Fund. At the award ceremony, she spoke about the central role that grassroots women’s organizations are still playing in Ukraine, and said she was pleased to accept the award “in recognition of hundreds and thousands of women activists all over Ukraine.”
The Vital Voices award to the coalition of five Ukrainian women’s group leaders was meant to highlight that “despite incredible challenges, local women’s NGOs remain the main players in Ukraine’s counter-trafficking field.”
“The TPP project ended in 2004,” Winrock’s Valentine said. “We worked with eight different women’s centers and today they are all still doing TIP work. These leaders have acknowledged the role that Winrock played at the time helping them to achieve sustainability and supporting their development to have the authority to call others out” to take action during the current crisis.
“It’s really all about localization and working collaboratively to strengthen local organizations and help to connect them with each other and to resources.”
“We will win.”
Lyubov Maxymovych, who accepted the Vital Voices award at the Kennedy Center on behalf of a coalition of women NGO leaders from Ukraine, said she hopes the world continues to pay attention and to respond to help her country, even as the war drags on.
“We are asking women all around the world to hear our voices,” Maxymovych said. “And to listen to us. We need your support now to help us… restore our country. We depend on the global community now in our efforts to rebuild, protect democracy, human lives and the rule of law. We believe in our victory. It’s a very high price we are paying but we will fight. We will win. We will win.”