“I love what I do and see immense value in it”

Acceptance speech

Yuliya Sporysh works with her Ukrainian NGO in the triangle of functioning kindergartens and schools, sustainable mental support and the transfer of skills and knowledge to women and mothers.

Yuliya Sporysh, a Ukrainian feminist

I would like to start my speech by expressing gratitude to the ceremony organizers, the Ukrainian and German teams of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and especially to Halyna Kotliuk, who initiated our nomination for the Award. I say ‘our nomination’ because this award is for the entire large team of the NGO ‘Girls’. Without them, I would never be able to support thousands of Ukrainian women who have suffered from the war.
But most importantly, I want to thank my mom, who is present in this hall today. Without her determination to raise me self-sufficient and independent, none of this would have been possible.

When I was working on the speech, it was hard to choose its focus, because the lives of women affected by russia's war against Ukraine are very complex. They confronted many difficulties, and these challenges continue to arise daily.

When I talk about women who have suffered from the war, I sometimes forget that I am one of them.

I live in Irpin, now a city known worldwide, where the war literally started above my head.
On the morning of February 24th 2022, I watched the aerial battle from our yard because the military airport in Hostomel, which the russians attacked first, was just 10 kilometers away. Until then, we couldn't believe that such war could happen in the XXI century. But after seeing it first-hand, my husband and I decided to leave Irpin.

We have a large family with many children. So we packed the essentials and relocated at first to western Ukraine and then to Poland.

As we were making our way to the border, Irpin was being occupied by russians. Getting out of it became increasingly difficult; evacuation trains and buses couldn't accommodate everyone, and volunteer vehicles lacked fuel. This is when the wartime activities of the NGO ‘Girls’ started. We provided financial aid to help people leave the city, cover their travel expenses to safer areas, and support settling elsewhere.

A particular moment is forever engraved in my memory: my children and I were living in a refugee center in Poland. My youngest son, who was six years old at the time, was playing with other Ukrainian children who, like us, were forcibly displaced. I was with him in the playroom, sitting on the floor near the socket, sending money to Ukrainian women for their evacuation.
Now that I'm sharing this story here, I very much wish all of it was in the distant past. I want it to become just a memory. But, unfortunately, this bloody war has been going on for over 2 years now, and I continue sending money to Ukrainian women for their evacuation. For more than 2 years, Ukrainian women have been living in stressful war conditions, with risks to their lives and health, as well as to their children.

When Irpin was still occupied, we already began providing humanitarian aid, delivering it to the least accessible areas of the Kyiv region. Sometimes our volunteers literally traced the footsteps of the russians who were destroying Ukrainian villages.
Irpin and Bucha were occupied for 33 days. After the Ukrainian military pushed the russians back, volunteers entered the cities. Then I started receiving calls that there were many raped women and girls, who needed help. It wasn't as much about medical aid, but primarily about psychological support.

This was the beginning of our major initiative to provide psychological support to women-survivors ofviolence. Later, it expanded into a large-scale project, aimed to offer psychosocial support to children and women living through the war in Ukraine.
Today, the NGO ‘Girls’ is a large and powerful Ukrainian women-led organization. Currently, we operate in 10 key sectors. Besides offering psychological assistance, we provide legal support, create child-friendly spaces and women and girls safe spaces, deliver humanitarian aid, deploy mobile teams in eastern and southern Ukraine, assist women in career transitions, and advocate for the localization of humanitarian response and recovery in Ukraine.
I could speak about my work for hours because I love what I do and see immense value in it.

But I would like to use this chance to tell you how Ukrainian women are experiencing the war today and what support they need at this moment.

Do you know what decisions every Ukrainian woman makes every day? Should she wake her children at night and rush to a cold shelter, or is it enough to just carry them to the hallway when an air raid siren wails outside the window? Can she risk going to the office, knowing that if an alarm begins, she won't be able to reach her children at kindergarten across the Dnipro river in Kyiv? Then maybe she should take a child to work? Take them to a safer region? But are there any truly safe regions in Ukraine when russian and north korean missiles reach everywhere?
And so it goes, day after day, for 737 days already.
Ukrainian families have to choose: either give their child an opportunity to study offline, make friends, and play with peers in kindergarten, or keep them at home and prioritize online education.

The educational losses are enormous. Children, eager to play offline with their peers, must relearn how to communicate and make friends. In our child-friendly spaces, working across Ukraine, there are queues of children waiting for arts or sports classes and group meetings with their peers. Socialization is crucial for children as it helps them cope with the traumatic events happening daily around them. All Ukrainian children are affected by the war, no matter how close their region is to the war zone. They all need offline communication and a happy childhood.

I would like to address an issue of school education separately. Most Ukrainian schools lack shelters, and even if there are sone, they cannot accommodate all students simultaneously. As a result, schools work on a rotational basis. For instance, one week, the 1-A class attends school in person, followed by the 1-B class next week. But even these hybrid formats are a luxury in many regions of Ukraine. There, offline education is simply impossible. Therefore, the first thing Ukrainian mothers need is investment in shelters for schools and kindergartens, co-funding for arts and crafts and sports activities, and collaboration among private educational institutions, local authorities, and international partners.

The second important topic is supporting mental health of women and girls. According to a nation-wide mental health research our NGO undertook in September 2023, women's psychological wellbeing is 10% lower than men`s. Women also react more acutely to stress.
Teenage girls express a need for offline communication and physical interaction with their peers. Many have seen friends moving away or have relocated themselves, they do not attend schools or extracurricular activities. As a result, adolescents feel lonely, isolated, and have no opportunities for socialization.

We also observe negative dynamics in mental health of Ukrainian women, as we refer about 20% of the requests of our psychological service to psychiatrists. For this reason, I would like to emphasize that we need long-term systematic support of the Ukrainians’ mental health. We need different formats of support, from mobile teams capable of reaching small towns and villages to permanent and sustainable support groups for women in communities; from online support to youth clubs and individual therapy. Likewise, I would like to stress the necessity of increasing the number of well-trained psychologists and psychotherapists because the demand for support is immense.

The third aspect I want to emphasize is providing women with livelihood support by reskilling and adapting their skills to current needs. During the war, over 4 million people left Ukraine, the majority being women of working age and children. Ukraine is losing its labor potential due to forced migration and mobilization of men. Employers are experiencing a strong staff shortage.

At the same time, we have many women who can participate in the labor market through career transitions. That is why I want to highlight the importance of investing in short-term reskilling programs that will help Ukrainian women to reenter the labor market in just three months. When a Ukrainian woman becomes employed, she will no longer require in-kind or cash assistance from donors. She will become independent and self-sufficient. It will also improve her psychological wellbeing and  give her the resources to build a life in the stressful conditions of war, often in a new place.

Let me share an example from our work. In 2022, in the Odesa region, we supported a community that had welcomed many displaced people from the Kharkiv region. The NGO ‘Girls’ created a temporary shelter and offered retraining programs to the IDPs. One beneficiary, a displaced woman housed with her son in the shelter, participated in a grant writing training course and got a job in the village council. In other words, we provided this family with several services, and within four months, they received new housing, new skills, and new employment. These stories inspire our work. We aim to have more examples like this one, more families successfully building a life in a new place.

As you can see, the three areas I described are very closely linked. Without functional kindergartens and schools, and sustainable mental health support, we can't engage women in the labor market. Likewise, we can't achieve this without providing women with new skills and knowledge. Therefore, I would like to emphasize to our partners once again that the comprehensive support for women and girls in Ukraine  is crucial.

On behalf of all Ukrainian women living through the war, I would like to thank the German people and government for being our reliable partner and the second-largest donor to Ukraine. With your support and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we will withstand and rebuild a strong European Ukraine.

Slava Ukraini!