Ukrainian human rights activist Nina Potarskaya talks about the situation and role of women in wartime
Nina Potarska is a Ukrainian social researcher, a coordinator of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and a co-organizer of the Women’s March on March 8. She was also one of the coordinators of the feminist squadron at Maidan. In her interview, she discusses the realities of war and women’s struggles.
— As far as I know, in the beginning of the war you left Ukraine but came back later. Where are you now?
— Now I am in my apartment in Kyiv. In the last month before the war began, the situation was alarming, it was absolutely not clear what to expect. I had a business trip scheduled for the end of February, but European airlines cancelled flights one after another, and the only country I was able to leave for was Egypt. On the morning of February 24, I had already been in Sharm el-Sheikh for several hours and intentionally woke up early because Putin’s speech made me feel uneasy. The first thing I saw on the news was a map of Ukraine, dotted with points of Russian attacks. It was hard to believe. I felt lost and frustrated — before this, the war had been localized in two areas and the front line was stable, clearly defined and predictable. That morning it became clear that it was a broad offensive, and all territories of Ukraine were attacked from the air. In those days, I believe everyone felt extremely vulnerable. Then I started thinking of ways to get my daughter to Europe, and to meet her there. As my son had left to study in Poland shortly before, we decided to go to his place. My daughter and my hardly mobile mother spent five days on the road, and four nights in the border area between Ukraine and Poland. In those days there was not much help provided by volunteers, so it was hard on them.
Now I came to Kyiv for a few weeks to get some things done and check on those who are still here. I try to come once a month to keep in touch and to keep a grip on the situation.
— Could you describe what you were doing before the war? As it is known, you were defending women’s rights in conflict zones. In this respect, your stand was on the necessity of peace because defending one’s rights in a war is extremely difficult.
— I was doing research required for further advocacy [of women’s rights in conflict zones]. There was often a lack of references while we wanted to provide justification for the claims we were putting forward. No less important was the work on creating a network of coordinated women’s grassroots organizations which provide women in conflict zones with systemic help. The latter included economic opportunities, practices for countering domestic violence, and supporting women’s activism. In eight years, some organizations have grown from a few people to several dozen, excluding male and female volunteers. We also organized support groups for women in villages and in the countryside. A lot of effort and resources were invested, and they proved to be efficient, as it seems.
“The psyche has adapted to the military regime, strikingly displacing and normalizing this abnormal reality”
Surely, the situation in the so-called gray zone did not leave us in peace. The war was happening there from 2014 onwards. Occasional shelling here and there. Obviously, our work presupposed that we had to communicate with both of the warring sides. We were focused on defending human rights and human safety in a broad sense, and this could be done only by applying pressure on the party that exercised de facto control over the area. Since 2016, this has become a key point of criticism towards me, which is why my name was put on the list of journalists published by the Mirotvorets [Piecemaker] media outlet. The list was published with a critical note explaining that I dared to work on one, as well as on the other side of the conflict. For people who are engaged [in humanitarian aid], this is not a negative verdict. But for many others, these [journalists included in the list] are “enemies” and “traitors of the motherland”.
— Does the fact that your name is included in this list pose any threat for you?
— It is unclear because I have not encountered any official criticism. If the security service has a charge against someone, it acts accordingly. For me, this is an element of psychological pressure, defamation, which has an impact on whether I am invited to take part in certain projects and roundtable discussions, or not. People often directly apologize for their decision not to participate alongside with me in a particular project. I approach their decision with understanding.
— What are you doing now? Obviously, going on with the work you were doing before the war is now impossible.
— I try to continue my research and analysis. At any rate, I try to research the demands of those organizations that provide help [to women], to consult donors regarding the character of required help and ongoing projects in Ukraine. We are trying to keep in touch via “Women’s network for inclusive dialog”, even though we are all having a hard time now because our members reside in different parts of Ukraine, including in the occupied territories and those under [military] control. We have a different experience, different fears and worries, but the fact that we are still together is inspiring. As we [the network] are made of organizations that are active in the territories under military control and out of it, as well as those in the newly occupied territories (some of the organizations have left, while others stayed on), and well as those in Western Ukraine, we have been trying to discuss some unifying claims that could potentially lead us out of the impasse of the Minsk agreements, during the time when putting an end to the war still seemed possible. Earlier, we also used to talk about the interaction with Russian feminists and activists, and we still keep in touch with many of them. However, I do not understand yet whether all of our members are ready for a serious conversation, whether all of the members have innate resources for it and what we could do to counter such large-scale violence.
Now [building a dialogue] is even more difficult than before. On the one hand, it is impossible to have a dialogue during the hot phase, when the female participants are mainly preoccupied with their own survival and are most vulnerable both physically and psychologically. Even the question of whether to provide Ukraine with weapons or not is a difficult one, and I personally do not have a definitive answer. If we are not provided with military aid, then our relatives and friends mobilized in the Ukrainian army have nothing to defend themselves with, and perhaps very soon there will be no country of Ukraine (which is so dear to me!) on the world map. And if there is a supply of weapons, then all these bombs fall on our land — not only on the heads of the Russian army, but also on our civilians — because the war is happening on the territory of Ukraine and, in this race, there is neither a glimmer of hope, nor peace on the horizon.
— Could you tell us about the key hardships women are now facing in Ukraine?
— It seems to me that there are several main issues — physical safety, economic security, and, as a consequence, psychological well-being. There are almost no chances to find a job in the country now. It is also difficult to understand where and when bombardment will occur. When I’m in Ukraine, I have a feeling of being safe for an instant, but it is unclear where exactly further danger awaits me. Recently, we have brought to Ukraine three female Nobel Peace Prize winners from three countries. It felt like there was no war in the city: no air raids, no military, everything is going fine, music is playing, cafes are working. And yet, the last time I was in Lviv, there was shelling at the train station, so you do not really know what to expect each time. This makes you anxious and annoyed by the necessity to watch out all the time.
“All humanitarian groups that help with moving, leaving, that organize humanitarian aid and volunteer help largely consist of women”
Two days ago, my friend and I went to the Philharmonic: there is only a tiny hall that is now open (its capacity is about ten people), but they are trying to continue working. While the pianist was playing, the air alarm went on. The audience looked at each other, the pianist began playing louder, and no one moved, because after four months people are tired. My friends, who now live in my apartment, said that there was an air raid alert four times during the night, but I no longer wake up to them. The psyche has adapted to the military regime, strikingly displacing and normalizing this abnormal reality. I have noticed a similar thing when coming to the war zone for a week, for two weeks, and especially for a month. At first you feel like you are in a war zone, and then you do not, then you no longer notice it; you adapt.
For example, before, while spending my nights in Avdiivka [note: a city in the central part of the Donetsk region], I heard explosions. At first, I could not fall asleep. But then I started to turn on the music and making it louder — then I just stopped noticing the war sounds. After two weeks of hearing continuous sounds of explosions, one even becomes anxious when one day it is all quiet: “What has happened? Get the explosions back, please”. They become part of a routine that one understands. And when they disappear, one becomes restless — what if something worse is about to happen, what if this is a sign of a regrouping of sorts? Such uncertainty is scarier than systematic bombing that occurs at the same hour every day.
As my colleagues note, although we got used to different situations, our cognitive abilities are affected: memory has clearly deteriorated, response rate decreased, and I cannot do two or three things at the same time, as I was used to be able to do before. And my overall quickness has also decreased. After being evacuated, many [activists] had to go and get special treatment. Our colleague from Svetlogorsk, who suffered from a concussion and bleeding caused by the stress, is now undergoing rehabilitation: for several months, she and a team evacuated and rescued thousands of people from the city of Izium and nearby villages. Apart from being exposed to the risk of death or injury, living at war is living on the verge of human endurance, which will have a negative cumulative effect [on people] years after the war.
— Let us talk about women and how they feel in Ukraine and outside of it. There are recent publications about Russian newspaper ads. In these ads, men offer shelter and financial support to Ukrainian women in exchange for sex, domestic work, or marriage. Besides such ads in Russia, there are offers like these made by men in Poland and other European countries. What kind of help could be provided to women in this situation?
— Yes, the patriarchy is here to stay. If we are talking about Europe, it is first of all helping [women] through widened economic opportunities. In the post-Soviet space, women are more independent than in any other country in the world. Women in the former Soviet Union are more independent than in any other country in the world. We work with organizations in different countries, and, of course, the way our women leave [the country], managing to find a job, a house, to get their children into a school, a kindergarten – it is amazing. Nevertheless, many Ukrainian women went to Europe or outside of their region for the very first time, went there with kids, without prior experience of independent living, without any knowledge of a language, without money; they are now in a critical situation, suffering from post-traumatic stress, having spent several days in cars, their basic needs being reduced to a minimum. If it is warm, they are not hungry and can lie down — they already find these to be superb living conditions. Of course, had these women had a safe place and a source of income, the risks [of being deceived] would have been lower. At the same time, it is the income — and not mere financial aid — that is needed because being on social assistance leaves its mark. Humanitarian aid organizations use the term “learned helplessness” to describe the situation when people simply lose the habit of planning their own lives, arranging their own affairs and keeping their lives under their own control.
To be in a foreign country not out of one’s own will is very difficult. All this creates distress, and being in such a crisis, women are more exposed to risks and “tempting” offers of scammers. When they see somebody willing to help them, they think: “What if it is a fairy tale? And what if it comes true?”
Since the war in Ukraine was followed by the crisis in Europe, and since Europe has received the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, this has greatly affected the gender imbalance in the labor market. It is hard to find a job, and those jobs that are available are physically demanding and low-skilled, and the increased demand for employment has enabled employers to lower wages in sectors considered traditionally female.
“We can stop wars only if we reach a fundamentally different level of understanding of social value and aspirations”
As my girlfriends and friends have told me, there are many Ukrainian and Russian women who search for a “mutually beneficial” relationship even via Tinder in Europe. This is, of course, nothing but “survival sex.” There is nothing we can do about it, because every woman is looking for strategies that are acceptable to her in order to survive. Unlike flood or fire, the current situation does not have finality to it — it is not a tragic episode that has occurred and afterwards you build a new life. Today it is unclear how long this uncertainty will last, whether it will last another four months or four years.
— Let’s talk about patriarchy a bit more. Since the war began, we have seen masculine images becoming dominant, with a consensus emerging around them. The President of Ukraine and all his entourage wear military uniforms, which makes sense, but European politicians have begun to wear military uniforms as well. Rhetoric is being generally militarized. How does this situation affect the feminist agenda, and what can be done to avoid the renaissance of patriarchy after the war, if we can talk about the post-war time at all? We know that after any war, as was the case after the last two world wars, men become few, and women are encouraged to give birth, do housework, even if they have served in the army.
— We went through this on a smaller scale in 2014-15, when the war was glorified. I went to the east [of Ukraine] to study the transformation of women’s everyday lives. There was a lot of talk about male heroes fighting at the front, and very little was said about how women reorganized their lives during wartime. No one mentioned it at all.
In the conditions of a modern war one’s home becomes unsafe. Many women fell victims [of shelling] as while in the process of receiving humanitarian aid, while standing in line for water, while looking for food, while moving home and taking their children away. I was frustrated as I listened to the organizations and women I worked with. They felt like they did not exist at all, and no one was helping them. Reproductive labor, which in post-Soviet countries is mainly carried out by women, depends on infrastructure. By destroying the social infrastructure, we dramatically worsen women’s living conditions. In wartime, no one relieves them of household duties.
Besides these responsibilities which become harder, women also provide psychological support, do the mental work of thorough planning, instruct everyone on what to do in different situations. Women often support others psychologically, but no one supports them. It is believed that since they do not fight, they should be fine. The fact that women have to solve so many problems is overlooked. All humanitarian groups that help with moving, leaving, that organize humanitarian aid and volunteer help largely consist of women. Men largely connect through their work; while women’s connections are horizontal. Roughly speaking, if we visit a Viber kindergarten chat, we will see mostly women there, and very few men. Everything that concerns hospitals, schools, community chats, all these horizontal communications are conducted by women.
Many of my friends and colleagues today run humanitarian aid hubs, with the support of municipal authorities. In other words, in wartime, social capital is being accumulated: what matters is not who you are and how much money you have, but your social network and connections, as well as how quickly you can find a solution to any problem or provide help.
“We do understand what dialogue is, what fosters peace and what definitely destroys it”
I believe that women will not just forget everything and go back to their background roles, there will definitely be a noticeable progress in bridging the gender gap both in Europe and in post-Soviet countries. I know that in Russia women are also engaged in activism, for example they help children who were evacuated from Ukraine to Russia to reunite with their families. Besides, there are additional gender-related bonuses: while men are being monitored and cannot enter nor leave Ukraine, women can freely move, organize assistance and the delivery of humanitarian aid, and transportation. Women were thus forcedly pushed into the public space. I don’t think an official or even a man who has fought in the war would now be able to scare a woman who has evacuated people from war zones; such a woman will be able to put anyone in their place herself. I have high hopes in this regard.
— Ukraine has recently ratified the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. What caused this decision?
— This was due to the fact that Ukraine was getting ready to receive an EU candidate status. On the other hand, there may have been some positive developments as well. Many women shelters have been opened, including those for survivors of domestic violence. Maybe the authorities came to their senses and remembered that the military, economic crisis, as well as post-traumatic stress may drive domestic violence to unpredictably high levels. In order to prevent this from happening, they must have decided to build a legal foundation to avoid an even greater tragedy for the country. At least, I would like at least for this interpretation to be true. This was very good news for us, and we believe this should reduce the harm from the war consequences in the context of countering domestic violence.
— In Russia, one of the most active groups opposing the war in Ukraine is the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. Do you think feminism can become a central force within the anti-war movement, and what is necessary for this to take place?
— Yes, I subscribed to the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s Telegram channel. I support all attempts to actively resist [the war] together, in solidarity, and on all levels and across different countries.
We can stop wars only if we reach a fundamentally different level of understanding of social value and aspirations. I do not mean just the post-Soviet societies, but the global one. We recently had a meeting with ICAN, which is a network of women’s organizations from conflict and post-conflict countries. It was shocking to hear how much horror is happening right now. Of course, our attention and that of the “first world” in general is currently focused on Ukraine, while Yemen is still torn by the war about which very few people in Europe know about. The same is happening in many African countries, but we have been living with this and ignoring these other conflicts for many years. The question is how do we treat all human victims, do we allow human suffering for the sake of lofty goals and what may these goals be? Or do we need to rethink the whole world order?
— If you could appeal to women in Russia, what would you say?
— I often think about it. On the one hand, I want to show compassion, as the feminist movement is in some kind of a vacuum, not only in Russia, but also globally. I don’t want to accuse anyone and say that you had to try harder and resist harder, build the civil society more effectively. It is clear that there are certain limitations, and we all have things that we could do better in the past. I would love to talk more and to be together, because I believe that a harmonious future can be built through safe communication. Maybe we all need to accumulate some strength and resources, and start this communication, keeping it safe and honest. I wish all of us a lot of courage and strength which we need in order to survive this nightmare.
— There is another group, which you may know, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, another important anti-war force. Of course, women whose children are sent to war begin to dramatically reconsider their attitude towards it.
— I think this group may be the most radical one, because these people have nothing else to lose. My friends recently lost their son, and it’s hard to imagine what restraints may be left after this happens. At the biological level, caring for one’s offspring imposes a powerful limit to one’s political statements and radical actions.
I think that the policy of isolation geared towards all Russians, regardless of their position and views on the war, is counterproductive. It precludes the [anti-war] wave from moving beyond Russia, and we cannot build on this protest and the desire to change the system. I can’t even imagine what rationale is behind this logic of total collective sanctions, which affected everyone, including those who left the country and clearly disagree with Putin’s regime. However, I’m not sure that my opinion is very popular, many of us still need to stay with it, get over it, and live through it. We have experienced all this back in 2014-16, and have developed immunity, we are no longer dramatic about many things. In particular, we do understand what dialogue is, what fosters peace and what definitely destroys it.