When I had the opportunity to travel to Ukraine with Project Kesher, I found myself recalling the magical children’s book by Kevin Henkes, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. The lovable Lilly is so awed by the world around her that many times her only words are, “Wow! That’s about all I can say – Wow!”
Project Kesher is a total “Wow.” Founded in 1989 by the chance meeting of Sallie Gratch, a social worker from Evanston, Illinois and Svetlana Yakimenko, a teacher in Moscow, Project Kesher was established as a grassroots Jewish women’s organization committed to women’s empowerment. Project Kesher develops leaders who become champions for social justice.
My first wow: the resilience of the Jewish community. Ukraine is among the poorest countries in Europe. Its modern history is marred by complicit slaughter of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Russian oppression of minority groups, including the Jews, followed the war. Ethnic conflicts continue to this day in Crimea and the eastern borders of Ukraine. In stark contrast to this bleak backdrop, the Project Kesher women who are mobilizing to promote gender equality and civic engagement serve as beacons of light and hope.
Wow, the gender gap is wide. The UN Development Program Gender Inequality Index, which assesses aspects of human development such as reproductive health, economic status and women’s rights and opportunities reveals that Ukraine falls in the bottom half of countries worldwide. Despite the existence of laws supporting gender equality in Ukraine, these provisions are real only on paper. Analysts say this is largely due to women’s lack of education and awareness (especially in rural localities) of international standards in the sphere of protection against gender discrimination.
Wow, there’s a lot of work to do. The gender inequality of the Ukraine means that women are particularly vulnerable to suffering the effects of poverty, sexism and disempowerment. Human trafficking has also taken a devastating toll, with thousands lured into suspect offers of employment in other countries, only to find themselves exploited by inhumane work conditions and sexual assault. The psychological scars of trafficking run deep, with high levels of PTSD, anxiety, depression. And what might be considered basic women’s health education, including topics like sexual development, gender identity, reproductive health, birth control and postpartum mood disorders, is largely absent in Ukraine – leaving women in the dark on issues essential to their health.
Ukraine, United States, Canada – wow, what? Project Kesher groups conceive, design and implement their program priorities because they best understand the needs of their communities. Members of Project Kesher Ukraine know firsthand the costs associated with the lack of education and services focused on women’s health. Last year they got mobilized, and in their determination to improve knowledge and advocate for services, Project Kesher Ukraine proposed twelve radio shows that would also be archived as podcasts – all focused on essential women’s health issues. The strategy is rooted in the idea that public radio is the single most effective way to educate, effectuate social change, and impact the policies that shape women’s lives in Ukraine. So Ukranian women, in consultation with a small team in the United States, submitted a proposal to the Canadian funding agency, Grand Challenges Canada, which funds “bold ideas with big impact.” Grand Challenges Canada reviewed our proposal and said, “wow, we’re in.”
Mental health in every episode. Wow. Really? In one of the poorest countries of Europe that ranks in the bottom half of countries worldwide in terms of gender equality, the women of Project Kesher Ukraine catapulted to the front of the class when it comes to advancing the integration of mental health in women’s health education and services. Project Kesher’s broadcasts create safe spaces for women to learn the facts about women’s health with relevant mental health topics integrated in every show. Each episode focuses on a particular aspect of women’s health – providing important information and space to explore issues and hear others share, in their own voices, how they have made decisions about their lives – whether to have children, an abortion, seek specific forms of contraception, get help for postpartum depression, and so on. The aspiration is that these shows will educate women and thereby empower them to advocate for healthcare that meets their healthcare needs, including mental health needs.
With the celebration of Rosh Hashanah beginning this Sunday evening, Jews around the world celebrate a New Year. It is a time for taking stock. As I pause to reflect on my time in Ukraine this past summer and this collaboration, I am enormously honored and gratified by the opportunity to contribute in a small way to the work of Project Kesher Ukraine. The women of Project Kesher Ukraine are living proof of Margaret Mead’s observation that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”