“I saw that it was possible to create conditions in which we can show our feelings without killing each other.” Talking to each other and engaging in joint action in the midst of a violent conflict – this project has been bringing together women from Ukraine, Russia and other European countries since 2015.
The armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 13,000 lives, destroyed buildings, infrastructure and institutions and profoundly disrupted inter-personal relations and trust across the region. The Women’s Initiatives for Peace in Donbas (WIPD) are attempting, on the one hand, to (re)build trust through intensive dialogue and, on the other, to foster joint action on problem-solving. Through this approach, the women involved demonstrate that cooperation across conflict lines is possible. The women become agents for peace and inspire others within their communities to engage actively for lasting peaceful coexistence.
The WIPDDialogue Platform brings together the main conflict stakeholders: Ukrainian activists, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine, representatives of the non-government-controlled areas (NGCAs) of Ukraine, refugees from the Donbas who now live in Russia, Russian activists, and international activists and experts. The women represent diverse groups within society; some work for think tanks or NGOs, some are journalists, some are grassroots activists who are trusted and respected within their communities and familiar with the local situation. In all, more than 50 women have been meeting approximately twice a year since 2016 at a location outside the conflict region.
WIPD was set up by women from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and Switzerland. The dialogue begins in the project teamitself, which is composed of representatives of the main stakeholder groups. Telephone conferences and meetings help in exploring changes in the conflict context from a variety of perspectives, developing strategies, decision-making and facilitating conflict-sensitive communication with all the participants.
The often lengthy discussions in the team are essential to ensure that all the other participants engage and stay with the process. In that sense, the project team itself serves as a model for cooperation across conflict lines.
To enable a conversation to start, the participants first had to find a common language. Describing the conflict and the events surrounding it needed a vocabulary that was acceptable to everyone. It proved possible to agree on shared conflict-sensitive terminology and to create awareness of the different messages conveyed by the words, always exploring the boundaries of what could be said.
To facilitate this process, at the initial meetings, a system of “red lights” – a kind of veto right for each participant – was introduced as a way of stopping the conversation at any time if it touched on issues which were not open for discussion under the current circumstances. Examples of such issues were the depiction and evaluation of past events such as the Maidan protests (2013/2014), but also the history of the Soviet Union and Russia’s role in the region.
During the first dialogue meetings, the red lights were activated often and many topics were dropped from the discussion to ensure that the process did not come to a standstill. Over time, however, participants expressed more willingness to engage with these “red light” issues.
This process of dialogue and awareness-raising is enhanced by diapraxis – making change happen through action in participants’ local communities. By October 2019, more than 30 joint projects had been developed and implemented by the dialogue participants. One example is the study and encounter visit by women from the NGCAs to Western Ukraine, which focused on Western Ukrainian culture and history. Other initiatives led to the formation of working groups, such as the “first Ukrainian passport” working group that looks at ways of simplifying the application procedure for a first passport for children and teenagers from the NGCAs.
The joint projects reach groups that are not usually present in civil society dialogues, mainly the population of the NGCAs but also ex-combatants and Ukrainian refugees living in the Russian Federation. The dialogue thus has an impact within local communities and wider society. At the same time, lessons learned from these joint projects can be analysed at the dialogue meetings, generating ideas for other fields of activity.
WIPD is continuing the dialogue at various levels. The initiatives are being expanded, and in addition to the larger dialogue meetings, smaller-scale dialogues will take place on specific topics. Participants are also increasingly reaching out to the public in order to encourage more people to get involved. In doing so, they have to strike a balance between security considerations and confidentiality, on the one hand, and transparency and openness, on the other.
The project “Women's Initiatives for Peace in Donbas” is supported by the German Federal Foreign Office and by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency - SIDA