Remarks by Ambassador Yovanovitch at the “Honoring Ukrainian Women of Courage” Event
Thank you very much.
I have to agree with Kristen. This is one of my favorite events every year. I started participating in these events when I was in the Kyrgyz Republic, continued in Armenia, and so glad that we are doing it here in Ukraine as well.
As you all have heard, we are gathered here today, during women’s history month, to honor and learn from one of Ukraine’s preeminent activists Oleksandra Matviichuk. I also want to welcome her mother Tetiana and her stepfather Mykhailo who are here today – let’s give them a round of applause. It’s great to have you here today because, I think, for all of us, no matter what we are doing in life, it’s a family affair. So, we want to thank you for your contributions to Oleksandra.
As many of you know – and probably many of you know Oleksandra very well because you’ve worked with her and you are friends – otherwise you wouldn’t be here – many of you know from first-hand experience that Oleksandra exemplifies leadership and courage. The leadership and courage that so many women have demonstrated throughout Ukraine’s history. I don’t think there is – with no disrespect to our male friends – I don’t think there is anybody in this room that would argue with what I would consider to be a fact that over the many centuries of the Ukraine’s hard history, it has been Ukrainian women who have gotten Ukraine through all of those moments of crisis.
The same thing is true today. That is Ukraine’s women who have gotten Ukraine through the last 25 years – really big challenges here. As we know, the challenges continue. It doesn’t mean that the men haven’t contributed in important ways, but I think that even if women don’t get all of the glory that they shouldn’t get the credit – at least here, in this room today. I am looking forward to a time when it’s going to be women more widely recognized for their roles.
When I returned to Ukraine – and many of have probably heard me say this, but I keep on repeating it because I think it bears repeating – I was away for twelve years, I left before the Orange Revolution and came back after the Revolution of dignity, so I’ve missed some key events and a lot of time – but I came back to a completely different country. The biggest change was in the people. When I was here before, people wanted a government that was accountable, they wanted a government that was transparent, they wanted to live by European values, but I think many people weren’t sure that it was going to happen in their lifetimes, that maybe it was something for the future. And they were going to work for it, but it was going to be further down the road. When I came back this past summer, the time was now and people were willing to work for it. They were working for it, they left jobs in the private sector, they were doing things to make change happen in Ukraine. And I have to say, as someone who came back to that new country, it was inspiring. And it inspires me today. And women were very much a part of that. The women that I have encountered over the last six months of being here are qualified, they are experienced, and they are ready to lead Ukraine – during the good times, but also during the challenging times.
We continue to have challenging times in Ukraine – with the war in the east. And with the promise of the Maidan – some of that promise has been realized, but some of it is still being realized. So challenges abound in every area.
Again, as Kristen noted, is no different from any other country. Women represent about 50 per cent of the population, as they do in most countries. And Ukraine needs every part of that 50 per cent to be leading Ukraine into the future – whether that contribution is on the economic side, whether it is on the political side – whatever part of society women are in, they need to fully a part of the solution to Ukraine’s challenges. I am so pleased to see that that is something that we are seeing today. It’s really important.
Just as we need Ukraine’s strong and courageous men, we also need Ukraine’s strong and courageous women to seize Ukraine’s European destiny. And there is a sense of urgency about that. Just as there was three years ago. We need to keep on pushing forward.
Oleksandra is, unquestionably, is one of those very strong and courageous women. So, I’d like to tell you a little bit about her, because we are celebrating her today and her many accomplishments. So, I’d like to share with you a little bit about her very inspiring history. When Oleksandra was just a high school student, she was intern at a bank thinking about a career in finance. Then she met Yevhen Sverstyuk, a founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Committee, a human rights activist, a legendary man, a man who had spent time in the GULAG. He spoke to Oleksandra’ s high school and he changed her life. This is the thing about change and transformation. He changed Oleksandra’ s life, but he also changed the lives of so many of the people that Oleksandra has touched over the years. Just with that, I gather it wasn’t just one encounter, I gather that you got to I know she got to know him very well when he inspired you.
Oleksandra, in her 20ies, founded and continues to chair the board of the Center for Civil Liberties, one of Ukraine’s leading human rights groups and a mainstay of Ukraine’s vibrant democracy. And she continued to work in that area, and then, in November 2013, answered Mustafa’s call to go to the Maidan and she was there on November 29th, a date that will really live in infamy here in Ukraine, when so many students, so many young people were beaten on the Maidan. And the next day, Oleksandra, with others, established EuroMaidan SOS to provide the injured and the arrested protesters with emergency legal assistance. She had volunteer lawyers out there, hot lines; they went to all of the power ministries to help people and respond; and that work continues today, which I hadn’t realized, in terms of helping people find justice and accountability which is such an important thing to do.
When the protest ended, Oleksandra and EuroMaidan SOS continued their work not only with that group of people, but also turned to the East to investigate cases of abducted and tortured Ukrainians, and I can only imagine how difficult that work was as well. It’s important on the advocacy side to help people, again, get justice, get their freedom; it’s important to monitor the situation and tell the truth not only for the Ukrainian people, but frankly, for the world.
Oleksandra also continues important institutional work of preparing cases for the international justice institutions to ensure, again, that justice and accountability are done not only for individual Ukrainians, but also for Ukraine. And I think that is a really, really important contribution that you have made.
I can only imagine – and I can’t really speak to this – the personal price that you’ve paid for the work in this field, because I know that when people come to you needing assistance, being frightened, needing all sorts of help, one takes that on. And while obviously we can’t see it on the outside, I am sure it’s on the inside. It’s a testament to your courage and your grace. Thank you for one.
So, Oleksandra, I think you will all agree with me, is a champion of grassroots activism. I think she is a role model for all of us, but more importantly, for a younger generation of Ukrainian women and men who need to continue that work as well. You represent the very best of Ukraine. We are so pleased to recognize your dedication, courage, and bravery with the U.S. Embassy’s Woman of Courage Award. So, I am going to present this plaque to you. The U.S. Embassy recognizes Oleksandra Matviichuk as Ukraine’s Woman of Courage 2017 for her constant and courageous dedication in defending rights of Ukrainian people. I really want to thank you for everything that you have done. I want to thank your family. I am honored to be here with you today.