Changing The Face Of Politics

Episode 19: Birgitta Ohlsson interviews Yuliia Sachuk

In this episode, Nora Noralla, Egyptian LGBTQI+ activist, interviews Birgitta Ohlsson, Former Member of Parliament and Minister in Sweden and current Director for Political Parties at NDI, about her experience fighting for gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights in Sweden and what it takes to be a strong, resilient, and influential leader today.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Birgitta Ohlsson, Former Member of Parliament and Minister in Sweden and current Director for Political Parties at NDI, interviews Yuliia Sachuk, Head of Fight for Right OPD and the Disability Research Center, about her personal experience fighting for disability rights in Ukraine and how she continues to advocate for a better quality of life for the most marginalized populations of PWDs.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Hello, welcome everyone to this episode of changing the face of politics podcast series. We at the National Democratic Institute launched a podcast series to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the legendary Beijing conference and platform for action. My name is Birgitta Ohlsson, and I'm the director for political parties at the National Democratic Institute and a former Swedish member of parliament and minister for European affairs and democracy. And my guest is Yuliia Sachuk. So a warm welcome to Yuliia. I look forward to this conversation with you. [Yuliia: Good day everyone.] So Yuliia is the head of the Fight for Right organization. She's an activist from Ukraine, a strong disability human rights defender, self-advocate, feminist. She was a nominee from Ukraine to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She's the winner of the National Human Rights Award, 2020 and Yuliia founded a national disability human rights defenders network. And the first in Ukraine disability research center, Yuliia, you were born in 1982 and you were a teenager when the legendary 1995 Beijing conference took place. And last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference and platform for action, at that conference, Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of the United States, later Secretary of State, coined the often quoted words, “women's rights are human rights.” So what do you think has changed for women and girls in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years? What has stubbornly stayed the same?

Yuliia Sachuk: I think that the last 25 years become a strong basis for achieving gender equality in politics and I think that successful stories of women politicians around the world shows that for us male political leaders is the norm. And thanks to the Beijing conference and platform for action this norms shifted around the world. But also as a feminist, as you mentioned as a feminist with a disability I'd like to stress attention on political leadership of women with disabilities because as 25 years ago, and now we don't have such significant changes for women and for women with disabilities in politics. And this is our main issue of work in the Fight for Right organization. And this is my personal story, that by means of thousands of successful women in politics around the world, women with disabilities also can be strong, successful, and impactful.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Thank you so much, Yuliia. And it's so obvious when I read about you to feel your passion and your commitment to that everyone with disability knows their human rights and can exercise them freely. So I wanted to read a quote from you. “There were days when I was afraid to go to school. Every day, I encountered harassment, jokes and bullying. Today I want no child with a disability to face such an experience. I want no parents or family members to feel ashamed that their child or  loved ones have a disability.” So what motivated you to take this fight and get politically involved.

Yuliia Sachuk: As you mentioned in the quote, the biggest motivation is my personal story and stories of my female colleagues and friends with disabilities. And to my biggest motivation to provide the condition in which women and girls with disabilities will not fight as I, because in post-Soviet society, there are very low expectations from women with disabilities. No achievements, no ambitions, no political activity. The society had a ready scenario for our lives to be carried by relatives and no dream about some big influence or self-realization. So my motivation to make this path to public activity, to political, to politics for women and girls with disabilities more easier and without struggles and without pain.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And we really thank you and appreciate that you took this fight to become a role model, not only in your own native country, Ukraine, but also in the region and the world. And we all know that in the world that we need more visibility and influence of women with disabilities in politics and more opportunities for their professional growth. And according to you, Julia, why is having more women and girls engaged in politics important? And if you could give us a few examples of impact that you've seen from the Ukrainian context, or maybe also worldwide.

Yuliia Sachuk: I am convinced that effective politics and so to reflect the real situation and solve with women's arise. Also, I think a policy can be effective only if it takes into account any needs of everyone. And if we don't have enough women with disabilities in politics, we do a lot to strangle them. And for example, in Ukraine, we are organized a tool school of political leadership for girls and women with disabilities. It's called Liderka and our participants receive the opportunity to have internship in central authority institutions. And we see great successes and the great achievements even from one month internships. They manage to stress attention on the issue of girls and women with disabilities face every day and state our selves just strive to include this issues in the policies. And one of our graduates Leonida Ponomaryova She  became the first blind female deputy in Ukraine. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: Thank you so much. And I read a lot about the Liderka initiative and I think it's so great to create opportunities connected to education, because we need to start early to show this reality for women and to give them opportunities. And Yuliia, as you mentioned, I mean, you spent 20 years of advocating for political participation of women with disabilities. Has it been easy or challenging to identify allies in the broad feminist movement to put for visibility for women with disabilities?

Yuliia Sachuk: Regarding the Ukraine, one of our goal is to make disability a real part of human rights agenda and feminist agenda also. And in Ukraine yes, we have some problems they lose because we have dividing this spheres, you know like this is disability sphere,this female sphere,this is LGBT sphere. And in our organization we try to follow the intersectional and participatory approach. Fight for Right was founded mostly by women with disabilities, but some of ours are also part of LGBT community, and some of us are internally displaced people. And this is our principle of activity because we really believe that only the full participation or real inclusion and needs everyone reflect in our activity can lead us for achievement,and for successes. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: Also here I wanted to ask you, do you think there is a difference in the way women and men lead and engage with others?

Yuliia Sachuk: I think that because women are more likely to face discrimination, negative stereotypes and gender based violence, we are more reflective or sensitive to such issues. And women are less likely to use aggression for example, in management, or in communication, or in making their decisions. And I think this is a really important experience. And I think because of this, women in politics also are more likely to have soft dialogue to find not maybe a simple, but a really effective way for problem solving which will include needs of every person.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Another quote I want to read from you that I think also really shows your character and it goes like this, “My disability made me stronger. However, I want people with disabilities not to be forced to become stronger, but to have freedom, to be themselves without shame and fear.” Could you tell us about this and what other people could learn from this?

Yuliia Sachuk: Now this is also from my childhood and from my story, because my fight for the rights of people with disabilities began in my childhood. And yes, I very often faced situations when I think that it is better to be silent, to be invisible, to take situation and not doing nothing. And maybe it will be better for my health and or relations with people. But very often I chose to tellthe  truth, to be honest, because I think a real feminist is a women who tell the truth about her life. And I think only this can change the lives of millions of people and especially women with disabilities who used to be silent. I take disability, my disability now like, my power, because I really think that this is the main thing, main useful thing, which I can do for improving our world, to make lives of people with disabilities, more qualitative and without the barriers and without violations of their human rights.

Birgitta Ohlsson: You touched a bit about this before in your presentation, but you were born in 1982 and you grew up in the Soviet union. That was a very authoritarian dictatorship, communist dictatorship country. And now, I mean, Ukraine is an independent country and it's very different compared to what was before. But could you tell us a bit when it comes to the situation for people with different disabilities, how the attitudes have changed for your life journey that has spent for a very, I mean, disruptive part of history in our part of the world?

Yuliia Sachuk: Yes from Soviet times now we have a lot of gaps in our legislation, for example, because in Soviet union, we have medical approach to disability, and now we are struggling to cancel these different provisions and to improve our legislation. But also we have a lot of negative stereotypes towards people with disabilities. And if we talk about different types of disability, for example, for people with physical or for people who are blind or hard of hearing I think the situation is there are the better because they have more opportunities to be visible in society and to be in society about. Regarding people with psychosocial disabilities or intellectual disabilities, we have now really hard situations because authoritarians mainly don't take into account their needs. And often they think that, for example, inclusive education it's not for such people. It is hard to educate such children. Also, we have such a thin client in capable persons in our legislation, even in 21st century and to be a fight with this and to try to advocate and to use experiences from more democratic countries, and so as examples and good practices. But the negative stereotypes toward people with psychosocial and intellectual disability is still really hard in Ukraine. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: I can imagine that. But it's also very interesting and also gives hope that some things do change, even though we have a lot of things to still work with in Ukraine and other countries and talking about Ukraine, especially, I mean, I've been observing the elections in Ukraine for the National Democratic Institute. And, and let us say like this, and I could identify room for improvement regarding accessible elections and I was therefore so happy when I read about your national campaign for accessible elections. Could you please tell us about that?

Yuliia Sachuk: We worked together with our partners and last year we organized pre-election campaign for people with disabilities to be more active during the elections. It was first elections in a contest with our new electoral court. We provide new norms regarding inclusiveness and it was a challenge because of the pandemic and the [inaudible] awareness raised in the videos while we explain how to take part in election and with provisions regarding COVID-19. And if we have a greater results of observation, because it was combining of personal stories, it shows people with disabilities themselves, with different types of disability. We explain why it is important to go to elections and how to be safe during the pandemic and election. And also we work in close cooperation with our central election commission. They have accessibility of working group. So we do a lot to improve different provisions regarding for example, information and accessibility of election regarding the reasonable accommodation using during the election and et cetera.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And I guess that this work will continue. I mean, you've just started that journey. Another thing that I wanted to ask you with your very important work human rights based works, how do, would you say that this human rights work, gender equality and democracy work together in your mind?

Yuliia Sachuk: I am convinced that democracy can't exist without gender equality because only in democratic societies the needs and voices of everyone are heard and are taken into account.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And another thing that I wanted to ask you is of course I mean the world right now, we're discussing theCOVID-19 crisis. And according to you, and the work that you do, how has that influenced or changed the work that you do in Ukraine? If you could give us examples from your movement?

Yuliia Sachuk: The pandemic became a great challenge for people with disabilities around the world and in Ukraine, especially because we didn't have strong politics and our medicine is not on the higher level. And I think that another problem was, for example, women with disabilities were not present during the decision making processes when state prepare their response to pandemic. And for example, politics, which were prepared to reduce negative influence, were not such inclusive, and they did not taken to account women and girls with disabilities. For example, we didn't have any statistics regarding funding or deaths or illnesses during this period with gender divided. And so regarding our work of our organization, as I said before we are an organization of people with disabilities and most of us are work from home and for us pandemi became challenge because we didn't have opportunities to meet. We have additional barriers for example, to organize our meetings and different activities. But on the other hand, we receive possibility to communicate more with state authorities by means of technologies and because many people began to use different kinds of technologies for meeting organized.or example women with disabilities and women who have experience of disability. For example, children with disabilities or relatives. I can say they were in very negative and very critical situations. And for me personally, the pandemic made my maybe political ambitions stronger because such situations insights situations, I was the regret that I didn't have enough opportunities and influence to change the politics to make them more effective and to be more helpful for my community.

Birgitta Ohlsson: I mean, lessons learned, and we know for sure that people that sometimes fear extra human rights violations or discrimination or harassment had even tougher situation during this period in our time. It is actually almost 20 years ago since I was elected to the Swedish parliament for the first time. And I had the great opportunity in the chamber to sit next to a very experienced member of parliament named [inaudible] and Kai was blind. And he had been the president of the Swedish Association of the Visually Impaired. So we had lovely conversations. We were both in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and we're sitting next to each other when we were voting and Kai he always reminded me about one thing. And that was about the important discussion on to remember the principle of do no harm, nothing about us without us. So I wanted to have your reflection on this because at NDI we work with all the different issues every single day related to human rights, but how could we do this? How could we be smart and give us your best advice on this? 

Yuliia Sachuk: I think we follow principle of inclusiveness and participatory approach to involve people with disabilities and women with disabilities on all stages of decision-making processes, at local, national, international level. And yes, as you said, nothing about us without us. It's the main principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. And it's one of the main principle of our activity: to be more sensitive, not to forget that there are no any decision which can see to all people. So to be more sensitive and not to forget that people are different, and this is okay, but we should use statistics, need assessment and experience and different papers to make any decision. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: We discussed allies before and talking about allies. I was just reminded that when I was a minister responsible for democracy issues, my friend [inaudible] who I sat next to in parliament, he helped me to, to pass the laws. All Swedish polling stations should be inclusive and accessible better. So it's always important to learn from each other and build strong relations. My final question Yuliia to you would be around what you are most optimistic about for the future. We know for sure that diversity and inclusion, they never just happen. You need to fight every single day to have real change, but what are you most optimistic about?

Yuliia Sachuk: I think that my successes and to my achievements now are mostly because I have strong support from what my female colleagues, friends, and other women who are successful. And I am very believe in women's solidarity. And I think this is like kind of the magic. And I think it help us to make this world better. And I think women's solidarity is not only the words, but I really can feel this support. And I tried to share with all the girls and women with  disabilities my successes and my strengths. And I am very optimistic about things from a women to women. It's my, it's one of my principle during the life. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: Wise words from Yuliia Sachuk. This was Birgitta Ohlsson for the NDI podcast series Changing the Face of Politics, and that is what we are doing every day at NDI, changing the face of politics. Thanks to you all for listening. And thank you, Yuliia, for being part of this conversation. I think we could have discussed an hour at least.

Yuliia Sachuk: Thank you.

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at


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