5 April 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.
Lukasheve Safe Space for Women
On my last day in Zaporizhzhia, we delivered ten more bicycles, this time to women in the village of Lukasheve, where Tetiana (my first interviewee) lives. They were pleased, as you can see:
Afterwards, Sashko and our driver were dispatched in the van and myself and Galochka – Sashko’s mum – were shown around the women’s safe space in the community centre. It was founded and organised by the very energetic Olena who told me about the programme, with some lively interpolations from her friends, women of all ages but mostly seeming to be in their forties, almost with a confident air that was a long way from the conventional media presentation of beaten-down rural Ukrainians.
Today the women were doing handcrafts, though they have a varied programme from day to day, including more academic subjects like English and psychology.
To start with, I asked about the origins of the centre. ‘At first, we wove camouflage nets for the army,’ Olena told me. ‘Then, in August, we started working as a safe space, offering things like psychological support, yoga and handicrafts. The women here needed somewhere to come to stabilise themselves, psychologically. Everything had fallen apart, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We started a women’s circle to study subjects like business planning, and invited trainers.’
Olena (in the grey tracksuit, below; Galochka is in the white anorak on the right) had the air of someone who was in charge, and there seemed to be a tacit acceptance of this from the others. Nevertheless, she was determined to emphasize that the centre operates democratically: ‘We started on a peer basis – no boss, everyone was equal, we taught each other. And that’s how it is now.’
I asked how many women come here. ‘Twenty-five,’ said Olena emphatically. Half of the women are IDPs, including Olena herself. ‘Some came here from other villages, Zaporizhzhia, even. We’re open three days a week. The women decide everything – what days we open, what time of day. Everything is decided collectively.’ When I suggested that there must be a timetable, Olena conceded, ‘Sort of… but it’s flexible. The women decide what we want and when. If we decide we want to do something different next week, we redo it.’
‘We’re going to do yoga again – when it’s warmer!’ put in one of Olena’s friends. Like a lot of buildings in villages, the centre is unheated. Although the small sewing room was warm with all the bustle, the larger room shown below was still chilly, even though spring has begun here. But it was smart and newly painted, just waiting to be filled with life.
Galochka and I spent a long time examining the Lukasheve women’s creations, which were impressive, and made of high-quality materials. Galochka asked if they sell their items. They do, and give some of the proceeds to the nearest hospital. ‘But just at the market in Zaporizhzhia,’ explained Olena. And at Christmas they had a fair: one of the women showed me a big table laid out with home-made Christmas and other decorations.
I asked how the men feel about this place. ‘They don’t like it very much!’ said Olena, though she didn’t seem to think that was a particular problem.
‘My husband’s out there sitting in the car waiting for me,’ said another woman, who also seemed unperturbed.
‘There’s an understanding that we need this,’ Olena explained. ‘It’s like medicine. We can’t just sit at home. We need to do something for ourselves. Emotional stability is important. We study psychology then go home and practise it on our husbands!’
I hope the husbands appreciate this. Even if not, I’m sure they benefit.
When asked what was up next, Olena became even more animated. ‘We have lots of plans! Plans right up to next April. We want to make this into a hub that women can visit at any time and do whatever they like. We’ve already had first aid and self-defence courses, and we want to practise our skills some more’ Then she added, ‘When the war’s over maybe we’ll organise a trip to visit you!’
As well as jewellery, the Lukasheve women make toys for children, rattan baskets, paintings (this programme is in it’s early stages; according to Olena it’s a pilot scheme, or ‘test moment’) and traditional Ukrainian headdresses known as vinki.
And they gave me one!
Anna says: Please consider donating to my ongoing fundraiser for rural women and their communities here.