The gender gap feels ever present in our society, be it in pay, job opportunities, education, data collection, or even humanitarian work. In news and media we see men leading the way in frontline humanitarian work, men as the mouth pieces for philanthropic organizations, men organizing aid responses ... women on the other hand seem regulated to the role of refugee or assistant. But is this true? Are women really taking a backseat when it comes to humanitarian responses, volunteering, and aid work?
According to a report published by UN News in 2019, of about 625,000 frontline aid workers "250,000 aid workers are women – a figure that amounts to more than 40 per cent of the humanitarian workforce." Yet, due to known gender gaps in data collection and what male dominated industries consider to be "aid", "humanitarian" or "frontline" work, these numbers could be skewed. Anecdotally, my experience has always been that it is women that are at the heart (and brains, and backbone) of most humanitarian and philanthropic responses. Now, of course I am biased being 1. a woman 2. someone involved with philanthropic work 3. a member of Soroptimist International ... but still.
Luckily, I'm not alone in my observations. “The most inspiring humanitarian workers I have heard of and come across are women – whether it’s midwives and nurses in refugee camps, to women leading community-based organizations in conflict zones,” says Bonnie Chiu, Co-Founder and CEO of Humanity Data Systems in a March, 2021 Humanitarian Grand Challenge article. Additionally, what do we consider "aid worker", "humanitarian response", and "frontline volunteers"?
Where do women lead community aid groups fall into this? How do we count young ladies using social media to fundraise during a crisis? Do these statistics reflect all the mothers who pass along their lovingly used baby items to refugees? All of these women are aid workers too, but they are not reflected in the data. So let's be clear ... I don't care if a report says women make up "more than 40 per cent of the humanitarian workforce." WE all know that number is actually much higher.
The Power of Women
In this modern age, with instant communication abilities available through Internet, cell phones, and social media, women are making their power known on a global scale. There may be no better example of this than the global female response to the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis.
When the news first started bombarding us with nightly reports of potential war in Ukraine, then with hourly horrific images of a country on the edge of obliteration, many of the stories about individual humanitarians were focused on men. Most of the frontline reporters were men, and so were many of the aid workers they interviewed. It seemed like, according to the news, the role of women in this crisis was regulated to refugee.
But when I began to do my own research into aid for Ukraine and as I started to plan a trip to Poland, I realized something... women were omnipresent, but as so often happens, they were in the background. Yet these women, organizing grassroots aid responses, coordinating 6-figure fundraisers, managing shipping and logistics into war zones were the ones REALLY getting the job done.
During this crisis it has been women who have risen to the challenge. Sure, men have helped, but the volunteers I saw, fundraisers I have met, and community organizers I’m collaborating with have overwhelmingly been women. And how have they been getting the support they need? By good old fashioned, never fails, word of mouth, amplified in the 21st century with social media.
Through shared videos, photos, and stories, women all over the world are connecting with one another to solve a major problem: humanitarian aid and long-term support for Ukraine. Take Rebecca Shipley for example. She is on her way to raising over $100,000 to support a daycare and shelter for Ukrainian refugees. Or Viktoriya Miclean who is coordinating aid for Ukrainian refugees entering the States at our border with Mexico. And I can’t forget about Nataliya Pristatsky, a Ukrainian native, now living in the States, who took her family on an aid trip and is continuing to use social media to amplify stories of refugees and the war.
As always, it is the power of women driving the current aid response. From volunteers to women’s organizations to grassroots fundraising… women are powering the support response for Ukraine.
Women Helping Women
The crisis in Ukraine is like none other we have seen in a generation. That is not to say the current humanitarian crisis inflicted upon Ukraine is the worst we have seen; it is simply different. How so?
It is the first time since World War II that combatants, allies, from that war find themselves at war with one another. Moreover, they are at war because one side, claiming to be ridding their neighbor of Nazi influences, is themselves committing atrocities enacted by the Third Reich. Putin may claim to be liberating Ukraine, saving them from treatment they have not experienced since the days of Hitler, but really, it’s just an excuse. Russia is using Hitler’s old playbook to determine their war strategies every step of the way. This includes claiming to be defending and uniting lost linguistic, cultural, and ethnic cousins, invading a sovereign nation, expanding power and influence, and committing genocide on a scapegoated population.
Unlike World War II, women, children, and the elderly are being evacuated from their homes, from their country, while men are required to stay behind and fight. The massive flood of nearly 5 million refugees out of Ukraine in only the first 7 weeks of this war has created a humanitarian crisis that is felt globally. However, with 60% of those refugees being women and another 35% being minors under the age of 18, are aid workers and humanitarian organizations prepared for the unique needs of these refugees?
The Soroptimist International - Krakow club is making sure that Ukrainian women and children are having their needs met. With a stated mission of “women helping women,” there may be no philanthropic organization better situated to support the majority women Ukrainian refugees. But with so much work needing to be done on the ground, it is Soroptimist International clubs in countries like Poland that can do the most immediate good.
The women of the Soroptimist International - Krakow club have been providing aid to Ukrainian refugees since the start of Putin’s war. By March 4th, 2022, Club members were making daily food deliveries to Ukrainian women and children sheltering at bus and train stations in Krakow. As the war in Ukraine escalates, so too does the aid and comfort provided by these amazing women.
Originally, SI - Krakow had goals of providing food, goods, and meeting the basic needs of Ukrainian refugees who found themselves in Krakow. “No one knew how long the war would last,” Ewa Fabisiewicz, the Club’s Secretary commented, “we were just helping however we could.” But with every week more refugees found their way to Krakow and it became clear that more needed to be done.
“Within hours of the first refugees showing up at Krakow bus and train stations there were individual citizens arriving to help. Within days, aid groups were organizing donations and distribution. About a week into the crisis the Municipality stepped in to organize the entire response and delegate work.” Anna Wszelaczyńska, one of the Club’s members explains. From individuals to the government, residents of Krakow were very happy with the local and national outpouring of support and hope for the Ukrainian people.
As the Municipality began to oversee more of Krakow’s aid response, the Club began focusing on long term aid goals. These projects included helping refugees find semi-permanent housing, providing support to local refugee shelters, and providing transportation for refugees who choose to continue their journey beyond Krakow. Additionally, the women of SI - Krakow also continue to collect and distribute meals to those women and children refugees still at a local bus station.
Recently the Club has been organizing what will surely turn into one of their largest ongoing aid programs; aid deliveries into Ukraine. Working with the local Municipality, other SI clubs, and their own network of donors, the ladies of SI Krakow have already sent one “miracle” truck, full of needed food and supplies, into war-torn Ukraine. They hope to regularly send trucks full of much needed goods and supplies into Ukraine for as long as the war continues.
Something to Prove
The more I spoke with residents of Krakow the more one thing became clear ... everyone was against Putin’s war and in favor of providing aid to Ukraine. Poland “has an odd history to contend with when it comes to war and refugees,” Ewa Fabisiewicz explains. “During World War II Poland was invaded so we know what it is like for Ukraine. But in recent memory our own government has not been welcoming of refugees. Poland as a nation and we as citizens have a lot to prove.” This sentiment was on constant display throughout Krakow.
As I walked the streets of Old Town Krakow, a highly touristy section of the city as well as the seat of the local municipal government, I could hardly go a block without seeing displays of support for Ukraine. From Ukrainian flags to window decals to hand made signs ... nearly every building proclaimed support for Ukraine and her people.
“Our PTA, lead by Carla one of our involved and active moms, is organizing aid efforts using school facilities,” shared Dr. Robert Sims, Director of the International School of Krakow (ISK). “Along with meal deliveries they are starting a school supply drive because all these refugee kids will be starting school in Poland but who flees their home with school supplies?” Additionally, the ISK is working with the local government and philanthropic organizations to provide transitional and long-term education, programs, and support for young Ukrainian refugees.
Bogustaw Kośmider, the Deputy Mayor of Krakow, discussed with me, at length, the major obstacles the city is working to overcome to better provide long-term aid to Ukrainian refugees. “Before the war Krakow was experiencing a housing shortage of about 1,000 flats. Now with more than 150,000 refugees in the city we are in need of 10,000 or more flats.” Despite this housing shortage, the city is working hard to help refugees any way they can. “I was just in Orleans, France where the city agreed to take 100 refugee families. But we could only find 40 willing to go.”
“Culturally there is very little differences between Poland and Ukraine,” Kośmider muses on the reason so few Ukrainian refugees want to move beyond Krakow or out of Poland. “Before the war around 1 million Ukrainians lived and worked in Poland, most of those in Warsaw and Krakow. Now refugees do not want to move away from a place that feels culturally familiar or to rural areas where they feel there will be fewer job opportunities.” Kośmider continued, “additionally, most Ukrainians are just waiting to go back. Even if their country is destroyed, they want to go back and rebuild.” For these reasons Poland, more than any other country, has a vital role to play on supporting Ukraine.
With nearly 3 million refugees currently in Poland, the government, aid organizations, and residents alike are ready to do what it takes to support Ukraine for the long haul. Despite the ever-growing need for funding, everyone wants to be on the right side of history when it is recorded for this crisis. The feeling of hope and support for Ukraine is simply palpable.
Ukrainians Need Your Help
With no end in sight to Putin’s war and news stories reporting on more atrocities every day, the need for aid to Ukraine and her people is going to grow. And women will be there to get the work done. From stay-at-home moms to PTA presidents to full-time working women to daughters and young women looking to make a difference. It will be women who stand up, roll up their sleeves, and get to work organizing for Ukraine. Sure, men will help too, but just you watch, women will be leading the charge and managing the real work that is humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
Join our Facebook Group to collaborate with others in the States who are organizing aid programs, fundraisers, and other efforts to support Ukraine.
Follow the Fat Mama blog to learn more about the aid response in Poland and get ideas for how you can help from home.