Public Defenders Offices Help Women Empower Each Other

April 2009

Oleksandra Kyrychenko is the head of the Union of Veterans at the Lyutens’ki Budyshcha Village Council, Poltava region, Ukraine. A highly respected and popular elderly woman, men and women in her village look up to Oleksandra for her leadership. Her life, though, was quite a challenging journey. For many years, Oleksandra returned home not knowing how she would be greeted by her husband or even where she would be spending the night. Due to her abusive relationship with her husband, she often fled to her sister’s home. When she had all but given up, a seminar on legal protection for rural populations, which she attended at the invitation of her friend, Hanna Skarha, renewed her hope.

Lack of legal protection for rural populations, in general, and rural women, in particular, is one of the most pressing yet frequently overlooked problems in Ukraine. The rights of rural women to meaningful work, equal salary and equal access to material goods, education, information and medical services are widely violated. Although legally entitled to land ownership, rural women, the majority of whom are elderly, cannot or do not know how to enforce their rights. And even if they own land, they still lack legal protection to benefit from it. The regulations governing land usage for agricultural purposes in the villages are too rigid and too complicated to benefit women. Women and children also suffer from a rampant domestic violence.

These unbearable problems inspired Hanna, head of the Poltava Regional Chapter of the Union of Rural Women of Ukraine, to try and help rural populations, especially women. She has fought for the rights of women like Oleksandra by representing them in the Public Women’s Parliament of Ukraine and in the Public Councils on Gender and Agrarian Issues. A zoo technician by profession, she always wished she was a lawyer.  An ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) program that trained advocates for rural women helped strengthen her capacity to assist women. Hanna, on behalf of her union, applied for an ABA ROLI sub-grant, which was approved. She says she has “put all her heart into the project,” and her efforts have not been in vain.

The advocacy initiative ran from May to December 2008. Seven U.S. Agency for International Development-funded seminars were held teaching 525 participants from 10 villages about their rights and about the legal avenues available to protect and enforce them. The Poltava Regional Chapter of the Union of Rural Women of Ukraine has certified 115 participants as “public defenders.” They consult on issues impacting rural life and represent their communities in judicial, executive and local governmental bodies.

In cooperation with regional pro bono lawyers, they provided 632 legal consultations, winning 18 cases in the courts and resolving 16 others through alternative methods at state executive bodies. Hanna says her lawyer acquaintances began noticing a decrease in their own clientele, as people learned how to fill out forms and file complaints on their own.

The sense of empowerment that these women feel in taking control of their lives and in advocating for their rights is a reward for Hanna. Yet, she believes that a more important achievement was the creation of the Center for Legal Protection in Zin’kiv District. The center, though small, maintains a library and legal database. Its pro bono lawyer also provides legal consultations. The center is training public defenders and supporting public defender offices in 10 remote villages of the district. The program also made legal libraries and computers available to the villages. Hanna has made it her personal mission to assist these legal libraries through donations she raises. Each of the 10 libraries now has at least 30 legal books and documents, which include Ukrainian codes.

And the service and persistence of Hanna and advocates like her is finally paying off. A seminar Oleksandra attended in one of these public defender offices changed her life. The information and support she received empowered her to advocate for her rights. Local militia began to take her complaints and concerns more seriously and she finally has peace in her home. So much so, her husband has renewed respect for the new self-assured woman in his house.

To learn more about our work in Ukraine, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at <rol@staff.abanet.org>.



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