Heroes in hindsight

How Ukrainian women are preparing themselves for the worst

, by Jasmin Nimmrich, Luisa Fechner, Zoriana Tsiupak

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Heroes in hindsight
Credits: Ukrainian Women’s Guard

Wartime societal division and most military structures in the world are highly gendered with emphasis on the role of men. However, we can see some trends of the expansion of women’s participation in this sphere: a network of Ukrainian women is taking matters into their own hands and changing the perspective on the part women play in resisting Russian aggression. The head of the NGO Ukrainian Women’s Guard talked to us about the topic and shared her views on women’s action in times of crisis.

“Many women wrote to me afterwards, telling me if it weren’t for these classes, that they may not be alive. Many managed to save whole houses and blocks in the suburbs of Kyiv thanks to our training”.

Olena Biletska is a lawyer, social activist and mother of 4 children, and has been the head of the Ukrainian Women’s Guard since 2014. In between unexpected electricity cut-offs, air raid alarms in the capital of Ukraine and her everyday work we managed to meet in a Zoom conference to talk about the reasons behind creating a women’s resistance movement and the impact it has on society. Being the only NGO that provides military and non-military training that enables women to face the struggles of war is challenging and inspiring at the same time. While telling us about the impressive achievements of the UGW in times of Russian aggression, Olena did not seem to be heroic about it: she described it as part of her everyday work routine and expressed an immense feeling of responsibility for the future of the movement and her country.

What is the Ukrainian Women’s Guard (UWG)?

We are a network of the women’s resistance movement in Ukraine that was created by me, Olena Biletska, at the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine in 2014. The UWG’s intention is to create a national ground network for the women’s movement to show resistance to the Russian aggression. By conducting general military training, we are preparing the civilian population for crisis situations. They know how to unite, what to do, how to survive and, if possible, resist the enemy. The basis for everything we do and offer are the five principles of trust, safety, cooperation, solidarity, and assurance.

How did the organization come about?

Back in February 2014 everyone was confused, and absolutely nobody knew what to do. I was connected to military affairs because my husband was preparing volunteer units at that time, so it came naturally to me to turn to him with a proposal to also conduct training for women. When I posted the announcement for the training on Facebook, I received more than 600 comments within a couple of days. That’s when I realized that there are a lot of women like me ­­– many were confused and did not feel equipped for a situation of war at all. So, we conducted mass education and general military training. Every Saturday and Sunday we covered how to survive in war conditions, as well as paramedical treatment for women. In the first year already about 5.000 women were trained by UWG.

What does the training look like?

If you were to sign up for our training, the first part would be an introductory lecture which lasts three to four hours. The following training then includes subjects like survival during war in urban spaces, how to handle hostilities, emergency and crisis situations, general self-defense, and psychological seminars that are conducted online. You could compare the education we offer to a one-year university degree on survival during war and crisis situations.

Do the participants have to pay for attending?

No, at least not if they are not able to. UWG doesn’t raise any membership fees to keep the barrier as low as possible. Consequently, we are reliant on donations. During the first years, so approximately from 2014 to 2016, I financed the whole project myself. In 2017, we received a grant from the Lithuanian Embassy, which we used for the restoration of a mill in the west of Ukraine as part of a social project for women. As of 2022, the Ukrainian Women’s Foundation and “Vidrodzhennia” foundation gave us small grants, which were used to conduct more survival training sessions. Right now, we continue to search for a constant way of funding our work.

What drove you to create the UWG?

At that time, I simply understood that it was a priority for me to connect women, to somehow give strength to others by enabling them with independence through skills. To follow that instinct and to be able to say that I have contributed to the training of more than 60.000 women all over Ukraine, is thanks to the freedom I grew up with. I simply cannot imagine the future of Ukraine in occupation. To maintain that freedom was my priority in 2014, and still is my main source of motivation in 2023. I simply followed my instinct and found myself to be responsible for the movement I started. At the beginning, I did not fully understand how large-scale it would turn out to become. In 2014, I could not have imagined that I’d be the head of an organization of this scale. When looking back it is cool to be a hero, but whilst looking into the future it’s very difficult to imagine yourself as the person of the hour. Today, UWG’s creation seems like a fantasy.

A fantasy you were the creator of.

While the initial idea was mine, I am grateful for many people who helped me along the way. For example, to perfect the structure of such a large-scale network I received help and advice from military personnel outside of Ukraine. And in the process of registering the NGO, five of my friends immediately joined me as co-founders. Everything and everybody involved in the process taught me a lot. First and foremost, I had to learn how to communicate, socialize, how to love, and listen to the members of a women’s society. As a young lawyer, I had always been surrounded by male colleagues. I was acquainted with their ideas and ways to work, so I had to get used to a purely female connection. Founding UWG was also my first contact with the third sector, meaning non-governmental organizations. Before that I had never been engaged in any social activities, other than helping out somewhere or partaking in charity work. But no matter my inexperience, I wanted this to last, to make it exist for years, regardless of whether Olena Biletska is gonna be there to lead it or not. It was and is my dream for this organization to become the face of Ukrainian women.

You have definitely affected a lot of women’s lives so far.

I at least try to. At times public activity in Ukraine can seem pretty chaotic, situational, and dependent on the demand of an unforeseeable situation. But I am a very systematic person, so I believe all of our efforts should be structured systematically and always be based on the needs of women and society as a whole. It could happen quite easily that reality gets out of sight, and we think that we are doing something good, but no one actually needs our efforts. Therefore, in the future, we simply want to support women and ensure their self-employment, and self-sufficiency. The women’s resistance network in Ukraine is very powerful and pretty much prepared for anything.

“I defended Kyiv and the Kyiv region whilst being five months pregnant. I just couldn’t allow myself to do otherwise. I found myself in a position in which I could change something.”

Would you say you could have been in any way prepared for the 24th of February 2022?

Being trained by the Women’s Guards can prepare you, but you could never be ready for war. When the full-scale war began, the network of the women’s resistance movement suddenly came to life all over Ukraine. All the girls who participated in our training since 2014 or were connected to our organization in some way, knew what to do. The members of the network helped with the evacuation of people from the occupied territories, handled negotiations with the enemy, and established communication channels in a matter of hours. I personally was on my phone 24/7. I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t take my children anywhere, and I defended Kyiv and the Kyiv region whilst being five months pregnant. I just couldn’t allow myself to do otherwise. I found myself in a position in which I could change something. With the knowledge I acquired as an instructor for survival trainings during combat operations and emergency situations, I calculated various scenarios and decided that my family and I would stay in the capital. This decision might seem unnecessarily risky to others, but Kyiv is like a symbol. If Kyiv were captured, there would be no Ukraine anymore.

Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine began in February 2014 with the annexation of part of Ukrainian territory - the Crimean Peninsula - and the invasion of Russian special forces in the Ukrainian Donbas. The Minsk agreements for a peaceful settling of the conflict were signed, but Russia did not fulfill them and continued shelling Ukrainian positions in the region. Since November 2021, the Russian Federation has been actively building up its troops on the border with Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, the President of the Russian Federation announced the beginning of the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine resulting in a full-scale war, numerous attacks on civilian and military infrastructure, and occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian society became united and organized different initiatives to help resist the enemy and deal with the consequences of Russia’s attacks.

How did the Russian full-scale invasion in 2022 influence your work?

UWG did immense work at the beginning of 2022. Since I personally understood that there would be a full-scale invasion, I knew already in 2021 that it would happen, and since the summer of 2021 I ran around our city administrations and asked: “Let’s do mass training for citizens about survival during the war.” But I was told that it was not necessary and not timely. Then, in January 2022 I simply posted an announcement that UWG conducts a training called “Survival in the city during hostilities, emergency situations and other crisis situations”. More than 1,500 women signed up for each class. At that time, we were restricted by the pandemic, so we had to limit the number of participants to a maximum of 300-400 people at once. The Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv allowed us to use its premises, and our mayor Klitschko provided the venue where we could hold the training. We conducted five to six military courses that we adjusted to the needs of civilians. Many women wrote to me afterwards, telling me if it weren’t for these classes, that they may not be alive. Many managed to save whole houses and blocks in the suburbs of Kyiv thanks to our training.

What is your goal for the UWG?

Over the past year, almost 10,000 women joined the organization. That is a number I would have never imagined, and it still boggles my mind. In Ukraine the engagement of the civil society rose because of a severe crisis. The situation continues, and the demand for our training remains at the same peak as it has been insince the beginning of last year. Everyone wants to feel safe, and UWG is somehow able to spread hope for safety and survival. With UWG I want to guarantee that there is always someone there for you, no matter your status, geographical location, or the nature of the threat.

The interview gave an insight to the importance of the engagement of NGOs during war times. Olena openly displayed women’s engagement through UWG and how they continue to impact people’s lives through their action. The achievements and dedication of organizations like UWG are essential in times of war and beyond. Their work can be inspiring for other actors in the field and is heroic in many regards.

This article is part of the project "Newsroom Europe" which trains young Europeans from three EU Member States (Germany, Sweden and Spain) in critical and open-minded media reporting and on the functioning of the European decision-making. The project is carried out jointly by the Europäische Akademie Berlin e.V., the National Museums of World Culture Sweden, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Spain, and is also co-financed by the European Union.

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