Women and Voluntary Activities in Ukraine: A Historic Outlook and a View On Soviet State Paternalism

by Svetlana V. Kupryashkina, Center for Women's Studies, Ukraine
"From each according to one's abilities, to each according to one's needs." - Soviet propaganda slogan

Ukraine throughout its history, with the exception of several brief historic periods, was a nation without a state. We considered Ukraine as it had been historically divided, i.e. into two major parts. The Eastern Ukraine which also included Kiev, Odessa, Donetsko-Pridneprovsky region and some southern regions, remained part of the Russian empire for several centuries. Western Ukraine, which included Galicia and Trans-Carpathian region, was a part of first Austro-Hungarian Empire and then of Poland until it became incorporated into the USSR as a result of Molotov-Ribbentropp pact in 1939. It is along these historic lines which imply differences in political and economic systems, religion and education that the historic development on Ukraine is to be studied. Apparently, the status of women varied significantly among these two regions, represented in different economic and legal systems, access to education, health care and other social services. Therefore, different issues had to be addressed by women in their community activism. The basic model of women's voluntary activities considered in the paper, originated in Western Ukraine of 19th century, and was mainly represented in the activities of organizations such as Souyz Ukrainok and Zhinocha Hromada.

Soviet power which was established in Ukraine shortly after 1921, and extended onto Western Ukraine in 1939, erased all attempts and history of independent community activities, including those of women. In their place, it provided a paternalistic model of welfare where all citizens were dependent on the distribution of state funds, making any activity independent from the state meaningless. As women's issues became a political priority, the state therefore committed itself to be a sole representative of women's needs, guarantor of women's rights and the sole provider of all social and employment benefits. The history of Ukraine as part of the USSR exemplifies the "strong state:: weak voluntary sector" dichotomy. The Ukrainian Soviet Republic established state-run women's organizations, called zhinviddily which were later transformed into branches of the Ukrainian Women's Committee and for many years maintained responsibility for overseeing 'women's affairs` in the country.

After the demise of the USSR and proclamation of independence of Ukraine in 1991, many not-for-profit groups were beginning to form in Ukraine, with women's and environmental initiatives among the most pronounced. It also appeared that the women's community often lacked an important part of its historic legacy of which it was being deprived under Soviet rule, while the history of Soviet-style women's organizations could only serve as a disempowering mechanism which continued to haunt the efforts of numerous groups to re-establish the voluntary and charitable traditions. The personal experience of the author as of a founder of one of women's organizations in Ukraine, also prompted the choice of the subject for the research.

The paternalistic nature of the Soviet state welfare system and its persistent disregard and suppression of any forms of charitable activities developed by institutions other than the state significantly discredited the whole concept of charity, voluntarism and community organizing and suppressed civic initiatives. Therefore, the process of building the civil society in countries such as Ukraine could incorporate the historic experience of pre- revolutionary community groups and organizations as a prototype of modern non- profit sector.

The history of Ukrainian women's organizations in Western Ukraine at the end of 19th - middle of the 20th century is one such example.


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Center of Women Studies, Ukraine, is a private NGO research and information center interested in promotion of women issue in Ukraine and other countries of Eastern and Central Europe. It carries out research projects, publishes newsletter and holds the library of feminist literature, has a database of women's organizations and research centers across Eastern and Central Europe.