«The hardest and the biggest change starts from small steps or How do activists promote gender equality in Zhytomyr»

How can you develop public organization in a small city? Why is important to respond to hate speech with facts? What are the regional challenges in promoting gender equality? What are the new projects launched by the National Democracy Institute? These are the topics for our talk with Viktoria Bezsmertna – Zhytomyr’s public activist and the regional coordinator of the Ukrainian Women’s Congress in the Zhytomyr region.

UWC: Zhytomyr is only 2 hours ride from Kyiv. So why did you choose to promote gender equality in your city instead of moving to the capital and get more opportunities for self-development?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: In fact, I’m not from Zhytomyr itself but from the region which is the third line of Chornobyl zone – Narodychi village. It is located near the border with Belarus. So I have an equal time ride from Narodychi both to Kyiv and to Zhytomyr – two hours and thirty minutes. I had a dream to study in Kyiv and applied for universities there but had to change my plans – Kyiv was too expensive for my parents. I cried so long because of this.

UWC: Have you changed your mind by now? What do you think about staying in small cities?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: Yes, my opinion changes a lot. I consider work on a local level to be very important. I do understand that Kyiv is a spot for different activities and many young people go there seeking for a better life. I had offers to work in Kyiv but I don’t like it at the moment. It cannot be unlimitedly expanded, so everyone could not move there. Zhytomyr is a comfortable city for me, for my professional development. On one hand it is difficult to work in regions, but on the other hand, there are some pluses. Developing local level is always an exciting challenge, which is more important than difficult. The hardest and the biggest change starts from small steps.

Our organization acts not in Zhytomyr but in small communities. We have great cases of developing gender equality on a local level. When you work with women you widen their gender outlook, and they start implementing those ideas from their perspective: conduct training on gender issues, implement the equal opportunities initiatives. This is an exciting result that inspires you to move forward.

As for the reasons for choosing gender area and women rights, I may say that it comes from my school years. I remember myself not getting why boys can play football and girls must just seat aside. When I started my education at the Zhytomyr state university, we had a Center for gender education there and I took the course in the Gender Equality School. That was the moment when I realized that I’m not alone in my wondering about the difference between boys’ and girls’ rights. I plunged into this area and started exploring women’s rights.

I hadn’t told anyone that I had been a feminist for 10 years. But in 2012 or 2013 I went to my first gender camp and found out about feminism. I had been hesitating for a long time and thought that I’m not a feminist but just promote gender equality. After I started exploring the topic, I waited for 10 years and then called myself a feminist, and I could not be silent about this because it was the way how things went.

UWC: Why did you decide to join Ukrainian Women’s Congress and become a coordinator in the Zhytomyr region?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: Firstly, I do appreciate the Ukrainian Women’s Congress’s activity and mission. Secondly, due to the Congress I had a possibility to join online events or discuss important topics with people who attended the events in person, so I do understand the importance of these events for Ukrainian reality. Cooperation with Congress looks like a great opportunity for me, as it lets to explore the national trends and implement them in your activities on the local level.

UWC: How come that you founded an NGO, the Institute of Creative Innovations? How did you join the public sector?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: I have been acquainted with the activity of NGOs since I was a student. Then I started convincing my friends that it is important to create our own organization and not to work for other people’s business. But this is one more interesting story. Because I was not with the Institute of Creative Innovations from the very beginning. I pushed its launch, but due to some circumstances, it was founded by my friends. I worked at the university at that time, and it was a bit difficult to align my work with public activism. After some period, I quitted the university and joined the organization and then became the head of it. I started my work here as a chief communications manager. And it’s been a year since I’m the head here.

UWC: You are doing the Gender Initiatives Festival together with the Institute of Creative Innovations. How did this idea appear?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: The Festival was the initiative by the Department of family, youth, and sports of the Zhytomyr city council. They initiated it and invited us to talk about our project’s experience. We call it “The Successful” shortly, but the full name is “Strengthening the political participation of women and equal opportunities policy in Zhytomyr region».

Actually, it was very interesting to get aligned with local authorities because they do a lot in gender direction in Zhytomyr. There are gender budgeting initiatives and advertisement gender audits. Svitlana Yevchenko who is on the topic of gender equality for many years and joined this department after the public sector works there. So, she is one of the gender initiatives coordinators on the local authority’s level.

It was interesting to be at the Festival as there were lots of local initiatives presented.

UWC: Please tell us more about this initiative.

Viktoria Bezsmertna: We had a gender audit in the medical sphere, as the authorities implemented gender budgeting and it was interesting to see the algorithms and results. Due to these activities, some funds were allocated for overcoming women’s cancer. The audit helped to save money for special equipment and increase the quality of women’s cancer prevention.

One more interesting initiative was implemented by Oksana Davydenko with the organization “The chest of useful deeds “Not weak gender” – courses of self-defense for young women and girls. That was not only about physical defense, but also contained a series of training about gender violence and the ways to overcome it. This was very in time because it was the period of Covid-19 quarantine when the level of domestic violence increased.

UWC: You mentioned a project that lasted for 3 years and covered the topic of strengthening women’s political participation. Does it have any results by now? Did you try to bring more women to the city council or the regional state administration?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: We had a series of training during this project, some of them were organized by us and others – by the National Democracy Institute, which was our partner. We had cases from women who were the participants of our activities. At the start they were convinced that politics is just a men’s affair; despite they were public activists in their communities. But some of them run for the last elections and became deputies. With the help of our events, they asked themselves: “Why can’t I do this if I do lots more things?”. And they run for elections and won them.

We also conducted training on gender equality for deputies. Many new deputies didn’t get how to be effective in this matter. So, we helped to arrange a deputies reception in one of the communities.
In general, this project was aimed to stimulate creating deputies’ groups on gender issues on the local level. But when we talk about this, we need to remember that there are problems that seem more important – roads, for example. We often hear that there is no need for gender unless we get everything for comfortable life done. But still, in the new convocation, 7 deputies’ groups were re-launched or newly created.

UWC: This is a great result. Didn’t you think about running for elections and becoming a politician?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: My friends keep joking that a person with my name and surname should have been a politician for a long time now. But I’m not sure that this is my way. I like public activities and see my result here. I know that women’s political participation is very important but do not feel my personal strength to be a politician as this is absolutely different direction.

UWC: Your organization works in the Zhytomyr region. Recently in Korostyshiv (in your region) the city council secretary Yurii Sarapiichuk was fired for sexist comments addressed to the “Holos” local deputy Yuliia Yuzhefovych. Did you hear anything about this case? Was this situation the first one when the official was fired for sexism, and are there many cases of this matter on the local level?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: I heard nothing about this specific case. Unfortunately, it is impossible to track everything, especially when we do not have strong communication with Korostyshiv. I’m more aware of the situation in communities where we have partnership organizations.

But I do believe that the level of sexism has decreased. Zhytomyr press club performs regular monitoring, and they are our partners, so we try to stay tuned. And it looks like the situation grows better.

UWC: Why is it happening? Does society become more progressive, are there more events?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: This is a complex approach. We always keep talking about these topics. Besides, Zhytomyr was one of the first Ukrainian cities that joined the Charter of Equality. Local deputies read and know things. There are lots of educational events. This topic has become discussed lately, the publicity keeps following it, so sexism and other discrimination are criticized in public.

UWC: Does public reaction to inequality have any impact?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: Yes, sure, public reaction is very valuable. Together with educational events it becomes a good formula of activism.

UWC: As you mentioned on your Facebook page, Zhytomyr regional state administration was going to launch the Youth council and you were going to be the Head of it. Why is it important and what would you like to achieve being in this position?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: I’m not 100% sure I’m going to be the head, but I have such a plan. Now there is the head of the initiative group for creating the Youth council. As for me, it is a great opportunity for involving the participation of young people. And gender issues and women’s rights have low coverage in youth communities. This goes like a separate topic – everyone knows about youth, and nobody asks young people about their issues. I am the person who stands for the opinion that we must ask young people first. When you try to communicate with them you can find out that gender issues and rights of young women do matter for them. These topics are highlights of all my activities. So, if I come to the Youth council then I will cover these issues too and try to educate young people. Although youth is progressive, there are still lots of stereotypes and gender equality that impact the quality of life.

UWC: You and your team run the project “The equality advocacy school”. Please tell us more about it.

Viktoria Bezsmertna: The equality advocacy school will be a part of our project in the Zhytomyr region that will last for 3 years. We implement it with the support of the National Democracy Institute. It continues our cooperation with deputies’ groups on gender issues, support their creation and consulting. We will perform education in 3 components: gender equality, advocacy itself and the advocacy of gender initiatives on the local level, but also will cover the topics of applying for grants and project management. We are also going to have a microgrant program for local initiatives so activists could implement micro-project on gender equality.

UWC: You talk about stereotypes and myths among people, but do you see any anti-gender movements in Zhytomyr?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: When we live through Covid-19 times, everything happens online. We had faced hate earlier when we started talking about the Istanbul convention both on personal and organizational social pages. I joined the flash mob “Sign the petition”.

UWC: 25 thousand sounds like an incredible result.

Viktoria Bezsmertna: Yes, I sent tons of ‘spam’. And to be fair enough I got tons of hate also. But my reaction to hate is always talking facts. I try to avoid discussions but do not ignore them. When you talk facts, people do not have any other argumentation.

UWC: What challenges do you see in the advocacy of gender equality on the local level? Maybe any organizational ones or lack of finances, difficulties with the team, emotional burnout, lack of political support?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: The main challenge is always gathering a team. Not many people from Zhytomyr would like to join public activities, and real activists often need to leave the town. So, we need to take people and teach them. But there is always a risk that you can lose a skilled person as soon as they get skilled. This is life.

That’s why you often come to the point where you get all the things done only by your own hands and just burn out. When you communicate with people, work on advocacy of some important matter and do not see any feedback – you just stop and think “Why do I do this? Do I have to do this?”. So the main risks for public activists are a team and getting burn out.

UWC: You said that you were not going to become a politician yet, but do you have any women or men in this area who you follow?

Viktoria Bezsmertna: If we talk about politics then I’m not sure that there is a certain politician who is an example for me. I appreciate when people of politics talk about gender equality and explain its importance to society. I like the activity of deputies who initiate creating deputy groups on gender issues, but not for the trend but for the real understanding of the value of such initiatives.