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Young people are raising their voices for Ukraine’s future

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18-year-old Maria Protsak's eyes shine as intensely as her orange-red hair when she talks about the role of activism in Ukrainian society. – You can be gay. You can live alone. You may choose not to believe in God. By making other young people understand that, we change society from within.

It has been seven years since the youth of Ukraine stood on the barricades during the Euromaidan demonstrations, in which the president Viktor Janukovytj used deadly force to quell the people’s protests against the government. It was not the first time that young people played an important role in the people’s revolt against corrupt regimes in the country. This was also the case during the 1990 revolution as well as during the orange revolution in 2004.

Young people are still pushing for change in the country. But the protests have moved in from the streets. Today’s young people are organized and demand equality, better education, and a more democratic society.

New dreams – old systems

The wish to approach the West is evident in Ukraine. At least in the western parts of the country. In the eastern parts, there are areas that since 2014 have been ruled by separatists and the Russian government.

The tug-of-war between East and West creates deep tensions and the war against Russia has led to millions of people living as internally displaced people in the country.

In the older generations, the Soviet heritage is still deeply rooted. Religion also characterizes everyday life for many. But the country’s young people know that there are other ways of living – they have dreams and expectations that require changed systems in order to be realized.

– Many still have the Soviet ideals echoing in their heads. Take your degree and get married. Have children. Dedicate your life to the good of the country. That is why the schools are closed institutions that do not allow dissidents, says Maria and pulls the knitted multicolored cardigan tighter around her.

– Religion is also strongly present. Many schools still have morning prayer.

Maria sits in a bright conference room in the newly renovated, hundred-year-old house that is the youth organization STAN’s head office. On the walls hang torn sheets of paper from the large flipchart set up by the window. The sheets are full of notes from the latest workshop on human rights.

STAN, which is based in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in southwestern Ukraine, serves as a nursery for young activists and Maria works as a project manager here. Through education and financial and moral support, young people are given the opportunity to take their first steps in civil society involvement.

– Civil society organizations give young people the chance to discover other possibilities in life. We show that it’s okay to be gay or transsexual. That it is okay to choose your own path in life. This is how we are slowly but surely changing society. But it is not easy and there are many who do not want to see change.

“Homosexuality is seen as a disease”

Almost half of the world’s population is under 25 years of age. But the enormous number of young people is seldom reflected in the influence over democratic decision-making processes. In Ukraine, centralization plays a major role in this. Likewise, oligarchs who fund political parties silence the voices of young people, as young people advocate openness, anti-corruption and new values.

However, since the Euromaidan revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing war, Ukrainian society has seen a significant increase in youth activism. Young people are not only important as active participants in civil society. They also play an important role as recipients of messages that promote tolerance and equality.

– Young people are open to new ways of thinking and reasoning, with the older generations it is more difficult, says Anna Andrievska, LGBTQI activist and employee at STAN.

Anna Andrievska, LGBTQI-activist and coworker at STAN. Photo: Malin Kihlström/IM

She has come in and sat down next to Maria in the conference room. The soft autumn sun shines in through the latticed windows which testify that there is a threat against the organization. At the same time as the coffee aroma creeps out of the kitchen, where the other STAN employees gather for coffee, Anna takes out her mobile phone and shows a picture from the Ukrainian Pride festival in 2012. The contrast to the safe atmosphere in the office becomes noticeable. The picture shows several men abusing a man who is lying on the ground with his hands over his head.

– It was then, in 2012, that LGBTQI activism really began here in Ukraine. It’s about changing the mentality of people. The more people who come out, and the more LGBTQI people who are seen in society, the more normal and legitimate it becomes. Young people have a completely different understanding of human rights than older people.

In her job at STAN, Anna works to keep track of bills that are presented and communicates about this on social media to arouse public opinion.

– Sometimes politicians try to get through homophobic laws. Recently, a proposal was made to ban homosexual propaganda, but popular protests stopped the proposal. The politicians’ argument was that “this is how it is done in Europe – look at Poland and Hungary!”. Many people here in Ukraine want us to get closer to Europe, so they tried to use that as an argument.

The fight for the rights of LGBTQI people is one of the areas where youth activism in the country is strong. Anna, who herself a few years ago took the step of leaving a traditional marriage to live with a woman, gets a tense expression around her mouth when she is asked what it is like to live as a homosexual in Ukraine today.

– There are still people here who see homosexuality as a disease. They say that it is normal for a man and a woman to live together, all other forms of relationships are abnormalities that should be cured in hospital or in the church.

Poor education creates problems

Almost 50 percent of young people in Ukraine have a university degree, and dropouts from education are insignificant, largely because schooling up to high school is compulsory and free. But

the quality of education is low, especially in upper secondary schools where low teacher salaries cause skills flight. Due to the economic downturn that Ukraine entered in 2014, the field of education, as well as the health sector, was hit by severe cuts from which it has still not recovered.

One school subject that is particularly underdeveloped is sex education. Religion and traditions still have a strong grip on the school system in the country, which results in sex education focusing on abstinence and shame.

At the organization Prostir Vdoma, Olya Novak pulls the sleeves of her green jumper down over her hands and blows on them to warm them. Even though we are indoors, the biting cold is palpable.

Olya Novak, Prostir Vdoma. Photo: Malin Kihlström/IM

– In schools, young people learn that abstinence is the only right thing to do. But young people will have sex, whatever the school tells them. What we need to do is inform them so that they can make informed decisions about their bodies. They must learn about contraception, anatomy and abortion, but also about respect, boundaries and choices.

On the bookshelf behind Olya’s head are books and magazines about feminism, sexuality and gender equality.

– My 9-year-old daughter came home from school one day and told me that one of her friends had had her period. The friend did not know what menstruation was and was completely terrified. So my daughter had to explain to her.

That was when Olya understood that sex education had to be reformed. She started studying the subject and took courses. Among other things, she took a course in activism at STAN where she received support for her ideas. With funding from STAN, she began arranging meetings for young people and parents where she taught her new skills.

– I was visiting a school and took part in a lesson where teachers said that “girls should not use tampons before they have had sex because it takes their virginity.” The same teacher also said that girls have to blame themselves if they are assaulted when they go out in the evening in a short skirt. There are also many teachers who are homophobic and do not hesitate to air their values ​​to the children.

As in the issue of homosexuality, the young generations are receptive to new perspectives, something that Olya has noted during her courses.

– Very few parents talk to their children about the body and sexuality. But I’m glad there are young parents who want to start changing things and I think my courses are an important step along the way. Children and young people need parental support. Through mobile phones, porn and violence are just a click away, but young people need to know that reality does not look like that. The parents are needed there.

Today, Olya works as a project manager at the feminist organization Prostir Vdoma. The courses are now part of her work alongside efforts for women who are exposed to domestic violence.

Responsibility to lead the country into the future

The new generation of Ukrainians are educated, digital, more connected to the world and with more rights than their parents or grandparents enjoyed. They are aware of it and they feel a responsibility for the future. But they also know that it takes tremendous commitment and drive to take up the fight against deep-rooted structures and traditions.

At STAN’s office, more young people gather around Maria and Anna in the bright conference room with coffee cups in their hands. Together, they are asked what creates and drives their conviction that society must change. Yuliya Lyubych, an activist at STAN, responds after thinking for a while:

– I lived and studied for one semester in Denmark. There I was struck by the fact that there were no youth organizations or activists, only organized youth parties. Then I understood that the young people in Scandinavia take equality and democracy for granted. We in Ukraine must constantly fight for ours. That is the difference. And because we are constantly fighting, we are moving forward.

Yuliya Lyubych and Maria Protsak. Photo: Malin Kihlström/IM

Everyone agrees that IM’s support is vital for the organization’s survival and success.

– Without IM, we would not have survived the corona crisis, Yuliya continues. Other financiers stopped their support when the crisis came. But IM has been by our side all along. It gives us strength and courage to continue.

But change takes time. And it is important to be persistent and not give up when old structures are to be broken down and a new society built. Maria pokes an orange-red strand of hair into one of her short braids.

– My grandparents think that I should not do this activist bullshit, that I should get a job, stop dyeing my hair and put on normal clothes. But I will never stop, says Maria with conviction in her voice.

By: Malin Kihlström