“The more you talk about the violation of human rights, especially during the war, the more irritation you encounter.” – Interview with Olena Shevchenko, Head of Insight NGO (Ukraine)
We talked with the head of Insight Olena Shevchenko and asked her how one can fight for equal rights and opportunities for women and LGBTQI* people under the current Ukrainian conditions and what problems one has to face. Insight is known in Ukraine for its educational activities and active response to cases of discrimination and violence. As an LGBTQI* organization, it provides psychological and legal support to the community, and as a feminist organization, it holds the annual Women’s March. One of its demands is the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, that is the Council of Europe Convention, on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
The interview was hold by Kateryna Nikolenko in December 2019.
Kateryna: In 2018, Insight was 10 years old. A decade is a long period of time for the institution to have survived in Ukraine’s harsh environment. Has your mission changed during this time?
Olena: Our mission has remained unchanged for over a decade – to provide legal, psychological, and social assistance to the LGBTQI* community and to promote gender equality and feminism in Ukraine.
“We have always worked to ensure effective assistance for the community. This is the most important thing for us.“
Some aspects of the organization’s work have changed, but not significantly. Although we started by organizing cultural and social events and protests, over the past five years we have become an expert organization and now we are actively working at advocacy level. From the very beginning, Insight was based in Kyiv and did not even have a permanent office. Now we have eight representative offices in different cities of Ukraine: Chernivtsi, Uzhgorod, Lviv, Zaporizhia, Dnipro, Zhytomyr, Lutsk and Odessa.
Kateryna: What does a feminist approach to work mean to you?
Olena: A feminist approach means giving women a voice and an opportunity to address the unfair situation in which we find ourselves today.
“In our patriarchal society women are constantly exposed to violence and multiple discriminations, are considered to be weaker and have lower social status than men.“
The struggle for LGBTQI* rights is directly related to women’s rights. We have a feminist structure, and even now there are no male cisgenders on our team. Insight includes transgender men and women, and most of the cisgender women are lesbian or bisexual. We use the same approach in regional offices where not a single senior position is held by a cisgender man.
Kateryna: Insight is one of the organizers of the Women’s March in Ukraine. How do you interact with other feminist organizations and initiatives?
Olena: Every year on the eve of March 8, we initiate the Organizing Committee and invite representatives of women’s organizations to join us. An intersectional approach is important for us and we strive to ensure that as many different groups of women as possible are represented on the March. Of course, views on some issues are very different. For example, there are initiatives in Ukraine that oppose the rights of sex workers. For our part, these women need help, because they work mostly on the streets, where they are confronted with a high level of violence both by law enforcement and by men who buy their bodies. The next topic on which we do not agree with other organizations concerns transgender women. Although we often do not share the position of other feminists, we still consider it important to march together.
“We urge absolutely all women to join us, because we believe in women’s solidarity.“
I believe that this year we succeeded. The march took place in the center of the capital, was more or less safe and attracted a lot of people despite the disagreements with other women’s groups that preceded it. I was also a member of the KyivPride Committee, but there were no major misunderstandings.
Kateryna: What other methods do you use in addition to street protests to promote changes at the legislative level?
Olena: In Ukraine, we are known mostly for our protests, but our advocacy work is also very active. Insight cooperates with local governments, ministries and committees and we are trying to implement international standards in their work. We produce reports, and generally have good results. Recently we managed to make changes to a legal gender recognition procedure . Henceforth, transgender people are no longer required to undergo sterilization in order to receive new documents, which, of course, can hardly be called a real success. We are continuing to work on this procedure. Another area of our advocacy work is marriage law. Our main goal is marriage for everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Kateryna: Who are your main opponents?
Olena: Our opponents are all conservative movements, which, unfortunately, dominate today in Ukraine. It is not a big secret that in the Ukrainian parliament, most political factions share conservative views. To understand the situation, one can simply have a look at the program of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches. It is based on so-called “anti-gender ideology”. Priests oppose juvenile justice and gender equality, they want to forbid any references to sexual orientation, gender identity, violence against women and children, sexism and so on.
“The right-wingers are just the tip of the iceberg.“
Different right-wing groups have ideologists and founders who work closely together. Their goal is to destabilize the situation in Ukraine under the guise of so-called “traditional values” and to restrain the development of civil society. And believe me, this kind of activity is getting a lot of funding today. This is also the reason why we do not openly publish the address of our office, although it is probably well known to everyone.
Kateryna: How did the war affect the situation regarding the rights of LGBTQI* people?
Olena: Many began to believe that during a war is not the right time to worry about human rights and violence. Since then, the LGBTQI* environment can be described as homonationalistic, where everyone is encouraged to sing hymns and be patriots. The beginning of the Pride movement coincided with the beginning of the war, therefore it is not surprising that among LGBTQI* people there are also those who share nationalist views, no matter how absurd this may sound. Some people from the gay community also do not want to discuss women’s rights, it just does not interest them, and another part generally opposes these rights and becomes irritated at any mention.
Kateryna: Is it true that respect for human rights is one of the main conditions put forward by the European Union for further economic and political support for Ukraine?
Olena: It is believed that human rights are a priority of EU foreign policy and in Ukraine people believe that some kind of pressure is being carried out in this regard. Unfortunately, it is an absolute myth. Respect for human rights is only one of the things on the long list of requirements, but not the main one. Since I am a participant in many international events, in particular those held under the auspices of the UN, I have the opportunity to observe how easily human rights issues can be neglected, for example during a vote.
“The European human rights mechanism is really important, but not very effective.“
Let me give you an example. One of the conditions for obtaining a visa-free regime with EU was a small change in the labor code of Ukraine prohibiting any discrimination of workers, including on the grounds of sexual orientation. This caused a stormy negative reaction in Ukraine, but in no way affected the situation. The LGBTQI* community has not become more secure, because we have no such judicial practice, and it is impossible to prove the fact of sexual discrimination. On the other hand, the legislative framework is important because when people have the same rights at the level of the law, then society gradually gets used to it. Legislative reforms will not lead to sudden changes, but they create the foundation for the future transformation of social attitudes.
“It is not about special rights, but about the fight against violence, which today affects millions of children, women and LGBTQI* people.“
If the law says that everyone is equal and, for example, has equal access to marriage, then people grow up with the understanding that this is normal. That is what we are striving for.
 Additional information can be found here.
Interview and translation by Kateryna Nikolenko. Published on the basis of a recorded conversation on December 27, 2019 in the Kiyv office of Insight. The full version of this interview is available in Ukrainian and English.
Photos © Nikita Karimov