When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Nataliya Vyshnevetska was forced to flee her hometown in eastern Ukraine. Together with others in the same situation, she founded an organisation promoting women’s rights and supporting internally displaced persons—whose voices are heard all too little, she says.
In early 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Russian-backed forces took control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts bordering Russia in the east.
Like many others, Nataliya Vyshnevetska was forced to flee her hometown located in the region of Donetsk. Together with her husband and small child, she ended up relocating to Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the western part of Ukraine.
“All my friends, they went all over Ukraine. In the city, I knew nobody,” she recalls.
Finding work proved difficult, too, at first. With a background in mathematics and programming, Nataliya had worked for large international companies before—but opportunities in the smaller city of Ivano-Frankivsk were scarce.
Not knowing anybody in her new city and not having a place of work, Nataliya found herself feeling alone and craving communication and friendship.
“You know, you’ve always had people and suddenly, you have nobody. Only your husband and small child, and your husband is at work. And you are sitting [at home] with your child all day and you do not have anybody to communicate with. To go to a restaurant or on a walk with. You’re alone.”
This changed when Nataliya found work at a non-governmental organisation.
“I needed a place like for self-realisation,” she says.
Through her new job, she met a group of people who, like her, had been internally displaced. Quickly, they realized that while there were many in Ivano-Frankivsk who wanted to support them, nobody was considering their actual needs or asking to hear their opinion. Nataliya still recalls events and activities being put together in the name of supporting internally displaced people, with money provided specifically for them—except that nobody had asked those affected whether they felt that these activities truly benefitted them.
“And we understood that they will not listen to us, because they have their own priorities and their own reasons,” says Nataliya.
“We understood that we need our own NGO.”
Soon after, Nataliya and her friends founded D.O.M.48.24—and organisation working to support internally displaced persons in and around Ivano-Frankivsk, and one of Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisations in Ukraine.
In 2015, D.O.M.48.24 began working with internally displaced person in the region, supporting their integration into the local community. After a few years, the organisation shifted their focus to preventing gender-based violence and promoting gender equality. This felt like a natural step for Nataliya and her colleagues, most of whom were women, she says.
“Almost all of us working for the NGO are women, and often active women like me. For example, I was working with two small children and for a conservative region, it was quite the challenge. Everybody was trying to tell me what the traditional role of women is,” Nataliya recalls.
“At the same time, we, like so many women—almost all women—experienced different forms of violence. In our personal lives, at work, on the street, everywhere.”
Today, D.O.M.48.24 runs a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. Here, they not only provide legal counselling, but also organise activities and networking meetings aimed at facilitating connections in the community. They also provide support in finding jobs and accessing other services.
When Russia launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, D.O.M.48.24 adapted their work to provide humanitarian support. Their—personal and professional—experience with internally displaced persons allowed them to be quick in their response and in assessing the needs of those coming to Ivano-Frankivsk.
“I’m an internally displaced person, and I know [what] I went through. For example, what I needed the first day of the invasion. What I needed when I left the occupied territory, what I needed when I arrived in a different city. What I needed later on,” says Nataliya.
By using focus groups, Nataliya and her colleagues conducted additional research on the long-term needs of internally displaced persons. They can still recall their own experience of being internally displaced and not being asked about their needs—which is why D.O.M.48.24 has made it a priority to include the voices of those affected when providing recommendations to decision-makers.
“For example, I knew that it would be a challenge in Ivano-Frankivsk to find a place in the kindergarten for women. And it was a challenge. But we knew that if we do not put it [down on] paper and support it with the voices of internally displaced people, no change will be made,” she says.
“When we are advocating, I don’t want it to be my own projection. I want those people, their voices, to be where a decision is taken.”
One year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Nataliya reflects on her own experience in 2014, realising just how much has changed in the span of nine years.
“You know, in 2014 people didn’t want to rent apartments to people from Donetsk and Luhansk areas, because they thought that we were traitors,” Nataliya recalls. “There were a lot of stereotypes, and we started working with those stereotypes.”
Today, Nataliya says, these attitudes are less common in Ivano-Frankivsk and support to internally displaced persons has improved drastically.
“We have a lot of lessons learnt from that situation. This quick reaction to the needs [of internally displaced persons] is also because we already had this before,” she says.
After a few months of providing emergency relief, D.O.M.48.24 slowly shifted their focus back to working on women’s rights and gender-based violence. Currently, the organisation is trying to develop the women’s movement in the region cooperating with activists and several other local women’s rights organisations.
For Nataliya, the work to support internally displaced persons in Ukraine and her fight for women’s rights are built on the same foundation: they are rooted in her personal experience, which is what keeps her going.
“My needs can be different from those of another person—but if I can look into myself to find my needs, what has driven me, I can understand the needs of other people.”