Story #140: Feminist Organization Becomes Women's Shelter From War Storm

March 8, 2024
Anastasiia Herasymenko, cofounder of the feminist organization Marsh Zhinok, shares how the group expanded its activities to assist women in need during wartime.

Marsh Zhinok (Women's March) has never stood idly by when women came to them for help, fighting for women's rights and supporting initiatives to protect them. But what did they do when war came to the entirety of Ukraine, and Ukrainian women were stripped of even their most fundamental human rights?

Anastasiia, the initiative's cofounder, says that 2022 was a year when every Ukrainian did something they would have thought unimaginable before.

"Our organization wasn't a volunteer one at its core. Following the situation during the first days of the war, we simply realized that many women needed other, vital help immediately. Everything we began to do we were doing for the first time, learning on the fly."

Marsh Zhinok had scheduled an event on February 24, 2022. It was called Femcircle and aimed to gather Ukrainian women together before the March 8 Women's Day holiday to discuss the most important things on the agenda of Ukrainian feminist advocacy and sign letters to the Ministry of Social Policy in support of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

Of course, the gathering was canceled, as well as the yearly Women's Day march. The good news was that Ukraine would ratify the Istanbul Convention that year, during the full-scale war.

Back then, bewildered by the lightning-fast total transformation of their world and short of time, members of Marsh Zhinok quickly transformed their operations to meet the needs of the crisis.

Photo of the Marsh Zhinok team

They first created an online form for people to use to request assistance, although they couldn't imagine which one and how many of them. They also launched a psychological support line. Meanwhile, their colleagues in the western cities of Lviv and Chernivtsi opened a shelter where fleeing women and their family members could stay for free.

"As an NGO, we had the social networks and experience to seek funding. We put out our Google Forms so that we would understand what people needed. At first, I processed these forms myself, but soon, I realized I needed other people to help me. At the same time, we started buying what people were requesting in various chats."

Marsh Zhinok has provided assistance in one way or another to approximately 85,000 women over the course of the full-scale invasion. This includes psychological and legal support, shelter, renting apartments for women abroad via Airbnb, sending packages of food, hygiene products, children care, and so on.

Although their work gained significant notoriety, Anastasiia realized there were situations where they weren't able to help.

"For instance, if a woman lacked access to the internet (which was common at the onset of the war - ed.) or did not know how to use it, she had no way of reaching out to us. Thus, we were genuinely pleased that so many people found our Google Form, as we recognized it as a form of 'privilege.'"

Nevertheless, Marsh Zhinok distinguished itself by the personalized assistance it was able to offer. Thanks to it, they were able to handle many non-standard requests, like providing cat carriers to people who were evacuating.

Some people even asked if we are some pet organization, but our work is all about women. At the onset of the war, it was mostly women who evacuated, taking along their children and elderly parents. There were many instances where a woman couldn't leave simply because she had no way to transport her cat. So, we purchased about 1000 carriers to send.

Now, Anastasiia says, they send lots of hand carts (Ukrainian "kravchuchki") to southern cities where elderly women need them.

"Currently, women's needs for essential goods have decreased, as the most critical moments have passed. However, having a hand cart available makes it easier to bring food and water home. This is especially important in areas with disruptions in running water."

Psychological support, an area that was also new to them, has also become less of an acute need. However, it remains necessary.

"Initially, we had a 24-hour support line, but we now run it from 8 to 11, because the need for services during the night has decreased. But frankly, we make all of our adjustments on the fly."

Considering the amount of trauma this war has brought upon Ukrainian women, it is no surprise that psychological help remains needed. Thus, Marsh Zhinok also works to shed light on women's war-related problems through their social media platforms.

While the harm from certain traumatic events is obvious, the organization writes about less-discussed issues, like when Ukrainian women are made subjects of hunts for sensational stories.

"Foreign journalists called us numerous times asking, 'Do you have any victims? Let us talk to them.' It was incredibly cynical, as it appeared they were solely interested in sensational news, photos, and stories. People, we are a nation at war, deeply traumatized! All I wanted was for others to understand this."

Anastasiia believes that these episodes occurred because such people have never experienced something similar, fortunately. But she and her colleagues did, which is why they worked for months at a time without respite.

Despite the challenges Marsh Zhinok has had to take on, none of its members have left. In fact, their organization has actually grown, and has become far more effective thanks to the volunteers who have contributed to their work.

If someone had told me then that we would be doing all these initiatives for 2 years, I would not have believed them.

Marsh Zhinok is not only maintaining its previous projects, but actively launching new ones. Their most recent initiative is women's community hubs in four cities of Ukraine, which have proven to be popular.

"Initially, we were unsure whether these sorts of spaces would be needed at all. However, we were pleasantly surprised to discover how important they became. We organize film screenings, hold discussions, facilitate creative workshops, and more. It became evident that the need for unity, communication, and simply being with like-minded individuals is strong."

At the current stage, Anastasiia says the organization has finally managed to take weekends off again like they did before the war. Gradually, they are also shifting their operations back towards their original mission of women's rights protection and advocacy.

"We are actively involved in discussions regarding the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, and we have also started to take up strategic (and not only) cases in courts."

Although there was an unexpected shift in their operations, Marsh Zhinok is proud to have found enough resources to meet new demands decently. They remain hard at work even though the most acute wave of insecurity seems to have passed, continuing to assist Ukrainian women in various ways. After all, the war goes on, with all its unpredictable events, and so does their fight for women.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at the UkraineWorld