Women’s Rapid Response: Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts

From March 4 to 30, 2022, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF) provided 39 rapid response grants totalling UAH 8,268,766 (USD 280,318) to women’s/feminist organisations in most oblasts of Ukraine. These grants have made it possible to evacuate civilians from active war zones, to provide shelters, to support people in bomb-proofing their residences, and to build systems for interaction among civil society organizations, volunteer groups, businesses, and the government. To ensure the safety of the members of these organisations, we will keep them anonymous until victory has been achieved. However, we will share the many ways these grants are saving lives in every region of the country in the midst of war, and instilling hope for a return to peace.

Balancing Support for Women

Because the context is so unpredictable, most grant projects for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have changed their focus even as they are being implemented. For example, the initial plan was to equip a shelter in Severodonetsk with a kitchen and sanitary facilities so that 80 women, children, and elderly people could stay there for long periods. However, when the space was bombed overnight, the funds were quickly repurposed to address the needs of people who remained in the line of fire or were trapped by the military occupation. In the words of the coordinator of the UWF-supported project in Luhansk oblast:

Supplies from Ukraine do not reach settlements in Luhansk oblast captured by Russian troops. The enemy has simply cut off all possibilities to help people. There is a critical shortage of anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular medications, insulin, antibiotics, and hygiene products, especially for infants. We are in contact with the chief doctors of Luhansk oblast and the military administration and with the oblast volunteers. Thanks to the UWF grant, we find and procure what we need and pass it on through our channels, which we cannot mention now. Part of the grant was planned to be used for psychological support to victims and witnesses of violence. Now this plan is no longer feasible in Luhansk oblast. We provide such services for the evacuated people who stay in the shelter in Kamyanets-Podilskyi.

One of the grants for Donbas had to be repurposed on the go with the help of people experienced in bombproofing to support evacuations and shelters. As the head of an organisation in Donetsk oblast that was among the first to receive a UWF rapid response grant described it:

We take people from Kramatorsk to Dnipro, fuel cars there, and pick up humanitarian aid. In Dnipro, it is still possible to get fuel at the fixed price of UAH 44 (USD 1.50) per litre. In Donetsk oblast, fuel is either not available or the price reaches UAH 90 (USD 3) per litre. On the way back, carrying medicine, clothes, crockery and food, we are under fire. We hand everything over to two shelters in Sviatohirsk and Bilozirka, which shelter approximately 270 people. At the beginning of the evacuation, substantial aid was provided by the locals. Now they also have a shortage of everything, so support from outside Donetsk oblast is crucial (there is almost no one to be a benefactor here, and it is difficult to find suppliers, and even more difficult to deliver goods). And everything is needed: people get evacuated with nothing. Two women with three children aged four to six years old walked from Izyium (Kharkiv oblast) to Sviatohirsk for two days, covering more than 40 kilometres on foot. They spent the night in ditches to avoid being hit by shrapnel during the shelling. Before that, they had lived in the basement. Everyone is sick, in poor condition and with no means of livelihood.

Women are the most vulnerable and, at the same time, the strongest

жінки, війна, допомога

Another organisation UWF supported in the early days of the war focuses on mothers of multiple children and single mothers. This organisation has remained in the war zone in Donetsk oblast to rescue the wounded, women with disabilities, and other women and girls with limited mobility. Its leader—herself a mother of four—together with 30 other volunteer drivers (men and women), transported people from the shelling zone, and delivered humanitarian aid. During one of her runs, her car was hit by targeted shelling. Although she didn’t realise it, she had suffered a ruptured intestine and had internal bleeding that required surgery. For the next two days she felt very unwell but continued making her runs, driving until she lost consciousness. As she explains:

It was important for me to get behind the wheel and show everyone that a woman does not succumb to fear, that a woman keeps it all operating. It lifts the spirits of other women and gives encouragement to men. Currently, I coordinate the work of the organisation from the hospital. As soon as it gets safer, a convoy of our vehicles takes people out of the shelling zone to a temporary shelter. People go through registration, get themselves clean, get accommodation there. Those who can use the evacuation train are taken to Kramatorsk. The most vulnerable families (with people with severe disabilities, multi-child families) are taken to Dnipro, then our partner organisations take them to the west. But not everyone goes to safer places. Paradoxically, some of the mothers, having had some sleep after their rescue, decide to stay with us and help rescue those who have been deprived of sleep and food for weeks.”

The courage of such women has inspired other heroic actions. For example, after rescue workers pulled five-year-old Mariyka out of the basement along with 11 of her neighbours minutes before her house collapsed, enemy forces tried to destroy their evacuation vehicle, damaging the tires until they were driving only on the rims. Nevertheless, the volunteers managed to make their way to Mariyka’s grandfather, who took in not only his granddaughter, but all the other children as well. Subsequently, through collective efforts other displaced people found the man’s daughter in the hospital and helped to bring the other torn families together.

Many children stayed with elderly relatives: parents sent their children to what they felt were safer places while they themselves stayed behind to work. Sixteen-year-old Liza did not speak for some time after she was evacuated from Izium and had not been sleeping for weeks. When she was finally able to speak, she explained that she was afraid she would die in her sleep without having hugged her mother, who was in Odesa. Seven-year-old Vanya also remained silent when volunteers tried to find out his name. When they found a shrapnel wound to his thigh, they brought him in for surgery but were told the hospital could not keep the child for inpatient care. “We were talking for Vanya—both with the doctor and the city mayor. We will make the impossible possible,” assured the coordinator of the rapid response project. As it turned out, the mayor took the child under his personal guardianship.

Being timely, flexible, simple – this is the only way wartime grants can work

The Ukrainian Women’s Fund launched a rapid response grant programme for women’s/feminist organisations on 28 February 2022, only five days into the war. To deliver grants as quickly as possible, we have kept project application, budget, and reporting forms as simple as possible. We make grant decisions within 72 hours of receiving the application. Grant managers with experience in shelters and evacuations are available for consultation and communication with all grantees. Every organisation can submit a grant request, quickly change budget lines, and report on funds from a smartphone—even with a slow Internet connection. As the coordinator of the UWF-supported project in Donetsk oblast said:

Minimum grant procedures are necessary because transparency and accountability are the foundation of charity. We appreciate that UWF has struck a balance between being systematic and flexible. One never knows when and where communications and electricity will disappear in a war zone or if they will be restored. If a car carrying people and humanitarian aid will explode. Whether the representatives of the organisation responsible for the grant will live to see tomorrow. Each region has its own curfew and there is a blackout in the evening. These are the realities of war and peacetime ‘shoes’ do not fit us; we need comfortable ‘boots’ to keep the women’s/feminist movement moving. Many donor organisations that used to be active in the east of Ukraine have moved to safer places in the country or went abroad before the war started, temporarily stopping their activities or trying to work according to peacetime standards. My apologies for being blunt, but it is true. The faster we act the more lives will be saved. Aid is valuable when it comes on time. If we had not received funds from the Ukrainian Women’s Fund on the very day when we were able to buy fuel for the evacuation trucks—4,534 litres of diesel—we simply could not have saved so many people. The following day, the bridges in Sviatohirsk were blown up, other petrol stations were only giving out 20 litres of fuel per truck, and you had to wait in line for a day. We managed to buy fuel in bulk because as critical infrastructurewe had an agreement with the local authorities.

The evacuation team coordinator continued:

The Ukrainian Women’s Fund has always been sensitive to the real needs of the women’s/feminist movement. It is the only organisation that understood how many women’s and children’s destinies were dependent on our social workers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It also understands that workers are burned out and need support that cannot be found in conventional grant competitions. UWF created a unique rapid response grant programme on the eve of 2021. Due to this grant, our social workers were able to take some rest and to feel that their work was appreciated, which helped them not leave their jobs. These days, while being on the firing line, pictures of our retreat are with us at all times. When the going gets really tough, we revisit them, get back to that sense of calm—this helps us to go on.


A systemic approach by women’s/feminist organisations

Most benefactors donate readily to provide protective equipment, humanitarian aid, and transport. But one element in the rescue chain that remains out of focus but without which the system will not work is the people. Even well-trained and experienced rescuers need timely help. As one grantee attested:

In our organisation, a mother who is raising 22 children is in charge of hotspot evacuations. She has just had an operation—recuperation will take weeks and is costly, and someone has to take care of her family-type orphanage in the meantime. One of the volunteers is a single mother who is constantly rescuing women with children from the shelling zone. Enemy forces shot two babies only months old in front of her eyes. The mother of the babies survived and our volunteer is with her all the time. The mother constantly rushes to the firing line to bury the little bodies even though this is impossible, as the shelling of the place where the tragic events took place does not stop. I understand that our volunteer is in need of help herself and those who have been working since the first days of the war need to be able to rotate with others who can relieve them.

UWF is also working on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan, translating it into military terms. Members of the previously formed local 1325 women, peace, security coalitions, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, have established a system to coordinate requests for assistance and responses to them and to share their networking experiences across the oblasts. This enables the timely provision of necessary assistance in the most cost-effective way and prevents humanitarian disasters in “relatively safe” oblasts. The coordinators of these volunteer groups create databases of requests for assistance and potential suppliers for a range of medical supplies, evacuation support, and shelter needs. They find suppliers in different oblasts and arrange the logistics. Not everything has to be bought with funds from non-government organisations. Often humanitarian organisations, local authorities, or specialised institutes have the necessary supplies and cooperation can be established directly with them. For example, the provision of insulin and other hormonal medicines was most effectively handled through the Institute of Endocrinology, a UWF grantee that has joined in advocating for this issue. The Institute will provide supplies at the national level and the women’s organisations will set up information campaigns and logistics so that people in need can get their supplies quickly.

Coordinators and volunteers are known and trusted because of their work in the 1325 coalitions. They have been working in shelters, territorial defence units, and police forces during the war, giving them first-hand access to information they know how to verify and systematise. It often happens that they ask for a box of sedatives and anti-inflammatory drugs. After checking, it turns out that the entire request is for one family that wants to have some extra supply or cannot adequately assess their real needs. The organisation provides a small portion to the family and the rest is given to a shelter where dozens of families can use the medicine.

The experience of the 1325 coalitions has allowed them to engage the resources of international partners, not only to respond to immediate needs, but also to develop a strategy for the future. As the coordinator of the UWF-supported project aimed at helping a network of women activists to continue implementation of gender policy and peacebuilding said:

Those who have built and developed the coalitions understand what the local and national women, peace, security action plans are all about. We have already examined them and know what will not be on the agenda by 2025. We formulate tasks that require immediate change. We are doing it now, to rebuild the country faster after the victory, to show the role of women in gaining the victory and peace-building, to make them equal participants, and not to allow women’s rights to be neglected. We can prepare for change now, as there are tried and tested mechanisms for interaction between stakeholders on the ground. I can say that communication with local government, security, and defence officials has become even more positive, because they see the activity and effectiveness of our coordinators and volunteers and perceive what we have been doing so far in a new way.