On an April 2022 afternoon, nearly two months into the war in Ukraine, Olena Shevchenko’s altruism was met with brutality. As she unloaded supplies from Poland to be distributed around a war-torn Kyiv, a man caught her off guard. Attacking her with pepper spray, he screamed, “Pervert, get out of our city!”
Shevchenko, 40, is no stranger to this kind of hostility. Since she co-founded the Kyiv-based nonprofit Insight in 2017 to support women and LGBTQI communities, she’s become one of the most recognizable advocates in Ukraine, and has been attacked seven times in the past five years. Before the war, her initiatives were often met with resistance; nowadays, she finds getting people to understand her mission is even more complicated.
“Why are you talking just about women? Why not men? Why not everybody?” she says, outlining the arguments she regularly encounters. The reality, she says, is that these communities are especially vulnerable during the war: LGBTQI people face fierce discrimination from fellow Ukrainians; most humanitarian aid doesn’t account for those with disabilities; and “the level of sexual violence during the war—you can’t imagine.”
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Shevchenko and her colleagues have pivoted their efforts to fundraising—acquiring everything from first-aid kits to hormones for transgender people. She estimates that in 2022, they collected more than $400,000 from various donors and campaigns.
Shevchenko says that conservative groups in Ukraine often accuse LGBTQI people of fleeing, claiming “they are not protecting the country, they are not helping here in Ukraine.” Her goal is therefore to show that these communities are very active “on different front lines. Not just military ones, but in other spheres.”
The gender stereotypes she’s worked tirelessly to combat over the years have also taken on another dimension during the conflict. Women have assumed a variety of roles in war efforts outside the home, including volunteer work and military service. “It’s a daily fight,” she says. “You need to remind people that women are not people who just need to give birth to new soldiers and take care of our heroes.”
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