Fighting social ills in ex-Soviet Union

Project Kesher's Moscow-based director Svetlana Yakimenko, left, and board chair Dr. Sharon Ufberg celebrate the opening of the group's May international conference in Kiev. (Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Project Kesher’s Moscow-based director Svetlana Yakimenko, left, and board chair Dr. Sharon Ufberg celebrate the opening of the group’s May international conference in Kiev. (Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – What’s a woman’s body worth in Ukraine?

About $12.

That’s the fine for wife beating, a paltry sum even in a country where the average monthly wage barely tops $200.

Tatyana Voytalyuk, a 32-year-old Jewish activist in Rovno, found that appalling. In December, she and the other members of her multicultural women’s coalition in the western Ukrainian city demanded action.

They didn’t ask city authorities to increase the fine. Most abusers are chronically unemployed, Voytalyuk says, so their wives – the victims – end up paying. Instead, her committee suggested sentencing abusers to 15 days or more of community labor.

“The mayor supports the idea,” she says, her eyes gleaming with satisfaction. “He told us there’s a lot of public work that needs to be done, and now he won’t have to pay for it.”

Voytalyuk expects the measure to be enacted soon, which she says will make Rovno the first city in Ukraine to take a serious stand against domestic violence.

She is relating her tale in a hotel lobby in downtown Kiev, where 100 Jewish women from North America and the former Soviet Union are taking part in “Summit on the Black Sea,” the third international convention organized by Project Kesher.

Created in 1989, Project Kesher is the largest Jewish women’s organization in the former Soviet Union, helping women reclaim their Jewish identity and become advocates for social change.

Project Kesher runs Jewish women’s groups in more than 155 communities and takes part in multifaith, multiethnic coalitions in 87 cities, bringing together more than 7,000 women to fight social ills such as domestic violence, AIDS, ethnic hatred and human trafficking.

The organization is getting results. Its newly minted activists are teaching other women how to demand better health care. They get doctors to offer free services and raise money to buy medical equipment. They run training programs for police on how to deal with women who have been trafficked and set up passport-watch programs to keep track of schoolchildren who travel abroad. They do AIDS education in public schools – something unheard of in most former Soviet cities.

They also teach one another Torah and push for progressive social legislation together with women from other ethnic backgrounds, bringing a Jewish voice to coalitions working for democracy and human rights.

Project Kesher was co-founded 17 years ago by two women: an American, Sallie Gratch of Evanston, Ill., and a Moscow native, Svetlana Yakimenko.

“At the time it was quite radical to imagine focusing on anything other than bringing Jews out,” says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, program director for Jewish life and values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who traveled through the region in 1988 to lay the groundwork for Gratch’s visit.

From the beginning, says Yakimenko, now the organization’s Moscow-based director, Project Kesher respected local input. Instead of the American women showing up and imposing their own agendas, they provide funding and know-how, while the local women decide which problems they want to tackle.

“Coming from the USSR, where you were always told what to do, suddenly to be told to make space for other’s views, listen, figure it out yourself – this was a big challenge,” Yakimenko says.

That doesn’t mean the American leadership doesn’t offer suggestions.

Karyn Gershon, Kesher’s Chicago-based executive director, likes to send newspaper clippings about possible projects to her colleagues in the former Soviet Union. Five years ago she mailed a New York Times article on human trafficking and asked her colleagues to check whether any young women from their towns were missing.

“They’d never heard of the problem,” Gershon recalls.

But a few months later the reports started trickling in: a group of Novosibirsk schoolgirls “disappeared” after a school trip; a young woman took a job abroad and never called home.

Project Kesher women soon were at the forefront of anti-trafficking initiatives across the region.

In another instance, a Ukrainian town took a tip from a domestic violence prevention project described in O, The Oprah Magazine and had local men put their hand prints on a wall under the slogan “These hands don’t hurt.”

That was more than a stunt, Gershon says. It’s part of changing the culture, of getting Ukrainians, Russians and their neighbors to say it’s not OK for men to abuse women, or for babies to suffer from AIDS or women to become sex slaves.

She acknowledges it was difficult initially to get her colleagues to take public stands against these low-prestige social ills.

“Why do we have to drag our women into something marginal like AIDS?” one Moscow-based activist asked her in exasperation.

That was before a Jewish woman who runs an AIDS clinic in a mid-sized Russian city came to a Project Kesher meeting and described how her local orphanage was filled with HIV-positive children.

“The women listened to her,” Gershon recalls. “They started collecting money, not ‘for AIDS’ but for the orphanages.”

That project eased the way for more active and public work, including going into public high schools to talk about AIDS prevention.

Among the more important things Project Kesher has done, its activists say, is showing people in the former Soviet Union that Jews are part of their society and don’t just take care of their own.

“Domestic violence isn’t an ‘issue’ for the Jewish community here,” Yakimenko says. “Anti-Semitism, Jewish cemeteries, yes. But domestic violence, no.”

In many ways the excitement expressed by Project Kesher activists, the muscle flexing and talk of “personal empowerment,” is similar to what went on in the early feminist movement in the United States a generation ago.

It’s coming late to the former Soviet Union and transforming the lives of the women involved.

Voytalyuk says she’s a much different woman than she was four years ago, when she started working with Project Kesher. Now she coordinates 23 women’s groups in 19 cities, runs anti-trafficking training programs and organizes support services for victims of domestic violence. She was appointed to her city’s coordinating council.

“I used to be quite shy,” she says. “Now I’m a leader in my city, in my region. I’m dealing with issues I never thought I’d deal with.

“We have influence,” Voytalyuk adds. “We count.”

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