When Nataliia Koval, a local councilwoman from the Khmelnytska oblast, first announced her intention to join a gender-focused caucus (GFC) in the Oblast council, she did not know that the decision would mean navigating a minefield of bias, stereotypes, and sarcasm, as well as accusations of “ruining family values” from her colleagues.
The quarantine has put masks on many people’s faces, but it has also ripped the masks off many faces…
Nataliia Koval, Ukrainian local official
But Natalia persisted. An elected official, activist, wife and mother of four sons, she knows perfectly well what modern family values are. In 2017, Natalia worked with several of her fellow councilors to create one of 106 GFCs that currently work in local councils throughout Ukraine. These caucuses are meant to bring together elected officials from different parties who address gender issues and respond to the needs of women and men in their communities. NDI Ukraine supports the formation and development of gender-focused caucuses by building the capacities of GFC members to implement gender-responsive policies.
In Natalia’s case, after the GFC was formed in the oblast council, an opposing caucus “For Family Values” was created. Influenced by the conservative, “family-values” platform of the interfactional caucus, many council meetings turned into battles over gender and the role of women in public and political life. Hardened by this experience and unwilling to stand idly by in the face of threats to her community, Natalia was prepared to take on a leadership role when the unthinkable happened - a pandemic poised to hit hard in Ukraine, still struggling with the human and financial cost of the ongoing war in the country’s East.
Their evaluation revealed a dire situation - doctors did not have vital personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hazmat suits or masks. Supported by her GFC colleagues and local activists, Natalia started the movement “Protecting Doctors - Saving Lives.” Natalia began by approaching local civil society organizations, including the civic organization Gender Council, an NDI partner. Gender Council contacted numerous vendors, city councils, representatives of local self-government bodies and volunteers. In the end, only one sewing factory had the experience working with the specialized materials to produce the necessary equipment. With the sewing factory onboard, Natalia coordinated the equipment production to ensure it met the needs of physicians and nurses at the local hospitals. She also negotiated with the company to sell the PPE to the city for the price of production.
On April 6, Nataliia and other activists delivered all the necessary equipment to the hospital, including reusable and disposable hazmat suits and shoe covers, a large number of hand and surface disinfectants, personal protective equipment, and other equipment needed to protect the medical staff.
As of April 10, the sewing factory had produced and distributed around 1,000 hazmat suits to medical professionals in the Khmelnytska oblast, and even received orders from several cities inneighbouring Ternopilska, Vinnytska, Rivnenska oblasts.
Natalia was not alone in her efforts. Within days of the first reported COVID-19 cases in Ukraine, GFCs became a primary actor in combating the spread of the pandemic.
In the Dolynska Amalgamated Community in Zaporizka oblast, the local GFC gathered information from individual citizens and has organized the delivery of food and essential medicines straight to citizens’ homes.
In the city of Chornomorsk, and in the Berezivskyi region of Odeska oblast, GFCs have worked to collect information from the most vulnerable citizens and have coordinated the local government response.
In Tairovska Amalgamated Community, Odeska oblast, members of the local GFC teamed up with a local civil society organization to collect masks, gloves and disinfectants to be sent to members of the armed forces on the front line of the war with Russia.
In Zaporizka oblast, the GFC in the Vilniansk regional council is organizing psychological consultations for parents and children.
Throughout the country, GFCs have taken a leading role in community education, as quarantine measures in Ukraine were announced suddenly and without significant public outreach by the national government. GFCs members have appeared on television programs, as well as making phone calls and publishing information on the local council’s websites and Facebook pages to educate constituents on both the spread of the virus and the legal ramifications of defying the government’s quarantine measures.
Throughout Ukraine, proactive men and women councilors have joined GFCs, and are ready to devote their attention and efforts to help their communities. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the degree to which GFC members have taken leadership roles to address essential local issues. No challenge seems daunting enough to throw those who believe in democracy and good governance off course.
Authors: Ganna Palagina and Onyssia Syniuk