Project report: ZtRASS, Ukraine

Grantee: ZtRass (Zhytomyr Regional Association of Social Services), Ukraine 
Project: Self-help groups in small towns for single mothers and victims of domestic violence

Sincere and open stories about people’s lives start with an invitation for “a coffee”. These stories are not for everyone, but for places where you are listened to, and can hear yourself, and where there is a real will to share the most intimate secrets and not to fear being judged, where you can speak about anything and people will understand, and if you ask – help you. 

Our project to set up women’s mutual help groups started with an invitation for a cup of coffee. The project was organised in 2021 by the Zhytomyr Region Association of Social Services and was called “Without isolation: a union of women with children living in difficult circumstances and helping each other”.   

The women live in small towns or villages in Zhytomyr Region, and on their own they are not able to overcome or minimise the effects of the circumstances in which they live. They constitute the largest group of vulnerable people in the region. Among the factors behind their difficult circumstances and social isolation are unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, psychological and behavioural issues, including the use of alcohol or drugs, and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What kind of real help can be provided in this situation? In order to answer this question, a group of specialists in social work got together, not only from non-governmental organisations, but also from government services and from the local university’s faculty of social technologies. They took a joint decision to offer local authorities methodical help in organising and holding mutual support groups for women in these circumstances.  The main challenge for this group of people is the fact that they do not know how to overcome their difficult circumstances themselves. 

Four local authorities (two urban and two rural) agreed to take part in the pilot project we proposed, to try to bring women together and create an atmosphere in which they could exchange useful information, help one another and take important decisions. For example, in health care, finding work, caring for their children and so on. 

And so a cup of coffee created an atmosphere which allowed the women to open up about their experiences, which aren’t like anyone else’s, share their griefs and joys, show their talents and unique abilities; and begin to accept themselves, see the power of being a woman, and use their knowledge to stand up again and return to living, while surviving their mistakes. This means – taking responsibility for their own destiny and continuing with their heads held high. 

In addition, having the courage to talk about this, like Olga did – living in a small village, where she moved recently and immediately attracted the attention of social services. She had an alcohol dependency, weak parenting skills, and a lack of financial means or even documents for herself and her teenage daughter…The attempts of social services to help her failed. This was understandable – she was aggressive, did not want to engage, and blamed her surroundings and the authorities for her situation. Their efforts had only short-lived results and the situation seemed critical. After great efforts a social worker persuaded Olga to come to a mutual help group meeting organised in a local social services centre within this project. This was in early September 2021. At that time she was not even willing to begin to speak in public. But something clicked and she came again, and again… and in December she gave an interview to a Ukraine-wide media platform, speaking openly about her problems, and the support and help which she had rceived by joining the group. She now regularly attends the group, with her daughter, and talks about the positive changes she has experienced. 

This is just one example of success in the four groups for women organised within this project, which has involved about 90 women. 

Every woman, especially if she lives in difficult circumstances, needs support and help. This has to be in an especially supportive atmosphere and where with the help and support of other participants, she can find her own unique resources of strength. This is the whole principle of mutual support groups, seeking joint solutions to improve people’s lives and as a result – to reach independent decisions to remedy personal social problems. 

The project has finished, but all the groups are still meeting, bringing in more and more women with the notion that you should ask someone to help you. Maybe your problem is also someone else’s. Share your troubles with someone, and maybe that person or even you yourself will see new ways to achieve progress. 

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