I am stubborn, and that’s a good thing!


Yuliya Sporysh brought the “leader” concept from the male-dominated IT industry to a civil society organisation. Her NGO, Girls, supports Ukrainian girls and women as they shape their own futures independently and successfully.

Porträt: Yuliya Sporysh lächelt in die Kamera

“Ukrainian women should be confident, rich and happy!” This is Yuliya Sporysh’s aim in life and, first and foremost, in her work. Born in 1985, Yuliya Sporysh is the founder and director of the Ukrainian NGO Girls (Divchata).

“We are all raised not to attract attention”, says Yuliya Sporysh, commenting on how girls are brought up in Ukraine. “We’re supposed to work, sure, but in a way that does not interfere with family life. We’re supposed to earn money, but certainly not more than our husbands make. To be able to cook, look good, and so on”, says the woman who herself walks through life with bright red lipstick, curly dark hair and an alert gaze. According to Sporysh, girls in Ukrainian families are still being raised more to be “well educated mothers and wives” than successful professionals. This social pressure defines the role of women in Ukrainian society.

“We don’t have a culture of financial independence for women. Women here tend to be dependent on their parents or, later, their husbands”, says Sporysh. “So, the first step needs to be that women change the way they see themselves and to understand how valuable they are. Realize that they are sufficiently well educated, beautiful and good enough.”

For this to happen, there need to be more role models shown in the sphere of education, starting from early childhood, and in the media domain. “There are, in fact, strong and successful women in Ukraine, but we know almost nothing about them”, laments Sporysh. “Many of them are prominent only within their own region, at the most, as the managing director of a local factory, for instance. It is still the case that most of the experts appearing in the media are men though.”

Yuliya Sporysh intends to change this: Girls in Ukraine should get to see and recognise women in the role of leaders too: “Aha, she did it. Why shouldn’t I be able to as well?”

Lessons from family history

“There have been a lot of unhappy marriages in my family, a lot of women who ended up alone at some point. With raising their children in poverty, despite working long hours”, recalls Yuliya Sporysh. “They didn’t complete their training, had children very young. And that was that: no chance at a career. Sporysh’s mother, too, was a single mother, but one who instilled self confidence in her daughter. “She always said: ‘If you want something, try for it!’ This taught me that the main thing is that you have to want it. Nothing’s impossible.”

She was always good in school, Sporysh recalls, serving as class representative and later as a study group leader. She was never active in civil society otherwise though. As a teenager, she decided: “No, I don’t want to live in poverty.” So, she stayed in school and then studied sociology at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and earned a doctorate. While a student, she also worked as an interviewer for sociological research projects, meaning that she was earning money of her own from her first year of university onwards. Later, she worked for several years in a market research company and as the head of a Ukrainian fintech company.

Yuliya Sporysh sees digitalization as bringing great opportunities for young women: Even those living in remote villages can now educate themselves, learn English online. And, she believes, social media have made it easier for girls to find role models, as there are many successful women, as well as men, who present themselves there. She herself did not have these opportunities. But:

I was always very stubborn! When I set my mind to something, I see it through. That has often helped me

she laughed. It is the reason her unathletic teenage self was able to learn to ice skate. And why she founded an NGO, practically from the delivery ward, ten years later.

That was back in 2016. Yuliya Sporysh and her partner had split up during her pregnancy, so she became a single mother. At the maternity clinic, she met a new mother who was still very young and destitute and decided to start an education project for teenagers.

“I knew nothing at all about how to start up an association of that kind. Everyone said ‘No, Yuliya, no one is going to give you money to fund sexual education!’ But I believed in it; it is an important subject, after all”.

Inspiration from the world of men to empower women

In 2019, Sporysh worked as a fundraiser for an IT start-up, where she learned about the special programmes used to motivate professionals to take on leadership tasks. She saw that the IT sector was still a predominately male domain, though, one “built by men for men, in which gender-based discrimination is widespread, whether with respect to salaries or to personnel decisions”.

On the subject of why she left the private sector, Sporysh says “There is no system like this in our society to mould women into leaders”. It starts early, with contraceptives. Because young women who get pregnant at 16 are not going to earn a training qualification, which they need if they are going to be able to earn money later.

Thus, Girls structures its work around two pillars: education on contraceptives and independent family planning, and instruments that support women in their efforts to earn their own money. This latter pillar encompasses not only further training courses, but also psychological support and outreach work. Today, Girls reports having an annual budget equivalent to about two million US dollars. A good 1.6 million of that comes from international funding programmes; more than 250,000 is from Ukrainian funding programmes. Donations from private individuals account for another USD 45,000 or so, and participants themselves have been able to contribute around USD 4,000.

There around 300 people in the Girls “team”, nearly all of them are women, many are internally displaced persons. Team members are also able to acquire further training within the organisation. They receive outside training as well, in areas such as mental health and psychology, for instance.

In 2022 alone, the year Russia launched its large-scale attack on Ukraine, Girls’ humanitarian relief operations and longer-term projects for women reached around 150,000 people in more than 120 locations throughout Ukraine.

As the director of Girls, Yuliya Sporysh is responsible for networking with stakeholders, international and national partners, governmental institutions and universities – from UNICEF to the Heinrich Böll Foundation to the IT Ukraine Association. She acts as an advocate for the rights of women and girls in Ukraine and is actively involved in the NGO’s strategic development. Sometimes she leads group meetings as well: “Young women at those meetings will ask: ‘How am I supposed to be a good wife and a CEO at the same time? If I started earning a lot of money, my husband would leave me!’ And in fact, this is the expectation in Ukraine: that the husband of a woman who is not financially dependent on him would feel that he isn’t powerful or manly enough.” It is essential to talk about this, and to offer different role models. After all, material things are still important for people’s survival in Ukraine. Especially now, in a time of war. “For young women, in particular, material independence is the first step towards a life based on self-determination”, Sporysh stressed.

The intent is that the women and girls who are participating in Girls projects today will, in the long term, be able to promote and support the programmes in the future, as disseminators and sponsors: “I believe that the women taking part in our projects now will transmit their content to others and will support the organisation financially. I am convinced that several years from now we will no longer have a need for funding from institutional donors.”

War brings destruction, exhaustion and opportunities

When Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the home of Yuliya Sporysh and her three-child family in Irpin, the town near Kyiv, was among those occupied by Russian troops. She fled to Poland, returning in December 2002, several months after the liberation of Irpin. Now able to work from a home office there again, she reports:

“I understand the women who are living in unfamiliar surroundings as refugees or internally displaced persons. And I know: When these women see me, they see that their situation is only temporary. That life is going to go on.”

Russia’s war is wreaking a great deal of destruction, including long-term damage to young people’s chances for an education. In regions near the fronts, children and young people can no longer attend their kindergartens, schools or universities because they have been destroyed or closed due to safety concerns. There is an increase in health problems in these areas as well: diabetes in children and cancers in women are on the rise.

Now, in wartime, it is women who have to bear the burdens of housework, childcare and caring for older persons

points out Yuliya Sporysh, who is speaking from experience. “To be honest, we are truly exhausted.”

For this reason, Girls has shifted the focus in every project towards mental health. Offering women psychological support, to relieve stress. This because, as Girls’ director puts it: “As long as we remain under high stress, our brains will not function properly.”

At the same time, Yuliya Sporysh speaks of a window of opportunity that the reality of the war might offer for progress towards equal rights for women in Ukrainian society. Many men are at the front or have been injured or killed. Women can and must demonstrate their leadership qualities. “And once you’ve learned something, you don’t just forget it.”

In 2022, Yuliya Sporysh also founded a research centre, whose mission is to analyse the psychological effects of the war and the needs of society. In addition, she has been active on a steering committee for NGOs that is pushing for the localization of humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

Now though, at the start of 2024, it is clear that this war is going to be a long one. Millions of Ukrainian women are living in other countries now. Ukraine is experiencing a dramatic drop in its population. Sporysh does not expect to see large numbers of people returning. “The women in other countries are integrating into those societies. Those with minor, school-age children will not be coming back any time soon. At most, it will be the women with adult children who return, or those who are unable to integrate in their host countries.”

To lure the other women back, Ukraine will have to offer an attractive environment with better opportunities than the other countries offer. “And that is going to take a very long time, and it will be very difficult”, says Sporysh.

As hard as it is to plan for the future in Ukraine in the middle of the war, Yuliya Sporysh has big plans for Girls. The NGO has projects running in many of the country’s regions. “We have plans for continuing our work in exile if, God forbid, the Russian troops should start advancing towards Kyiv”, she says, adding “Under no circumstances would we stop our work.” Especially since Girls will continue to receive financial support from abroad. In the coming years, Sporysh plans to become more active in the political arena, as an advocate for the prevention of gender-based violence and gender-based equality.

And personally? “I see myself as a person who builds women up to be leaders. These women are very confident and well trained, women with a lot of energy they use to bring about change and who are financially independent.” All important goals for Yuliya Sporysh, her NGO Girls, for all women and girls, and for Ukraine as a whole.