Ukraine The volunteers helping their neighbours access their rights

“Before the conflict, I served as a social worker, helping elderly people. And life always takes me in that direction. That is why I am interested in the opportunity to help those who are in need due to the conflict,” says Svitlana.

Since 2020, she has been volunteering as a “paralegal”, providing information and counselling about legal issues to vulnerable communities in eastern Ukraine and referring them to free legal aid providers.

At least 3.4 million people are in need because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine – a major humanitarian crisis. Two-thirds of those affected are women. And in many areas, women have become the backbone of their communities, contributing to community resilience, peace and development.

According to UN Volunteers, women comprise 60 per cent of the worldwide volunteer movement. Volunteering offers local people a chance to share their existing expertise, skills, and knowledge – and for some, to learn something new.

Since mid-2020, the Giving Hope For Them (GHFT) has been enabling free legal aid services in communities along the eastern Ukraine frontline via female volunteers called “paralegals”. These paralegals provide essential information and counselling for people living in remote and isolated communities.

Svitlana: a local activist

Svitlana Shavlinska, 51, is an internally displaced person from the non-government-controlled city of Pervomaisk. In October 2014, she moved to the village of Orikhove, which lies on the frontline, after heavy shelling damaged her home.

Frontline communities such as Svitlana’s, with a couple of hundred residents, are often isolated and hard to reach. Over the last six years, almost all the young people have left. There is no work. Schools have been closed or re-organised. And despite the current ceasefire, residents frequently hear gunfire during the day.

Since moving to Orikhove, Svitlana has been actively following various humanitarian and development organisations’ activities, attending meetings and proposing her ideas. Last year, she even received two business grants, from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council, to purchase sewing machines.

“I started providing paralegal services, including Covid-19 awareness-raising sessions, after completing an GHFT training course on legal and protection issues. Some topics are very close to me, as a displaced person with similar pressing issues,” says Svitlana.

Since December 2020, Svitlana has assisted around 40 people with legal information on the topics of most interest to the village population: subsidies, inheritance of real estate, pensions and social care.

“Svitlana helped me to issue a death certificate [for my father] and receive state cash assistance for the burial,” says Olha Martovytska, 43, one of the residents who received paralegal support. “She explained the procedure and made a referral to the GHFT legal officer.”

“GHFT’s support allowed us to appoint my father’s pension to my mother. It was a great help during these difficult times. I would never manage to do all this by myself without assistance. I am very grateful to Svitlana.”

Helping communities to protect themselves

Maksym Holtvianytskyi is a technical officer with GHFT and has been involved in setting up the paralegal network. He explains: “Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we managed to train and equip nine paralegals along the frontline, piloting the network in the Luhansk region with European Union support. All of the paralegals are women between the ages of 27 and 72 with different backgrounds and lifestyles.

“We support them with laptops, printers, mobile phones, and all kinds of information materials. This will contribute to GHFT’s long-term sustainable support to ensure that protection efforts continue in these communities.”

Valentyna Bochko, 72, is an officially registered volunteer and devotes all her time to helping her fellow villagers. She lives with her husband in the village of Nyzhnie. Before retirement, Valentyna was the headteacher of the local school, where she worked for 40 years.

“People always sought my advice, help and just a kind word when I was the headteacher of the school. And now they come to me as a volunteer who cooperates with many relief organisations,” she says.

“Just before you [GHFT] came, a woman asked me to help with hygiene items for her relative who has mobility problems. And even though I have nothing to do with such things at first glance, I will still help.”

A collective effort

Local volunteer networks proved to be a good source for recruiting paralegals. “We coordinated activities with HelpAge International, also supported by the European Union, to identify proactive and diligent сandidates,” says Holtvianytskyi. “Together we have been able to provide holistic protection services in hard-to-reach and isolated communities.”

As an GHFT paralegal, Valentyna shares the knowledge she gained during her training with her fellow villagers.

“People come up to me in the market or the store,” says Valentyna. “Everyone in the village has my phone number. Now, with the coronavirus, people mainly call, asking various questions. The most popular topics are the subsidies and the status of children affected by the armed conflict.”

“I love this work”

The village where Valentyna lives is made up of three parts with about 2,000 residents in total, including up to 50 displaced people.

“They are all I have got,” she says. “People say that I am the most reliable person for giving real help. Of course, I cannot solve all the issues without professional intervention. In such cases, I refer to GHFT legal specialists. Usually, these are complex issues; for example, a rejection of compensation for destroyed housing where the documents remain in the uncontrolled territory.”

Despite her age, Valentyna is working hard and has no plans to stop.

“I love this work. And I do not care that I do not get paid at all. I negotiate with the village council if a place is needed for holding meetings with the community and prepare announcements of such events. Sometimes there is a backlog. Then my husband rushes to help me with composing lists and printing copies.”

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The GHFT paralegal network in the Luhansk region consists of nine volunteers. As of 1 April 2021, they had assisted 1,150 people and made 163 referrals to GHFT legal officers, and 59 referrals to other institutions. A similar network is being launched in the frontline communities of the Donetsk region, with 10 volunteers on board.

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