Ukraine elections make history

A stack of promotional leaflets © Alexander Gryn
Election candidate Alexander Gryn hopes to challenge misconceptions about people who use drugs.

History was made in Ukraine on Sunday, 25 October when candidates representing sex workers, the LGBT community and people who use drugs stood for local election.

As the votes were being counted we asked three candidates what this moment means for marginalised communities who continue to experience widespread stigma, discrimination and rights violations in the country.

“Like any other Ukrainian I have the right to be elected,” says Anastasiia Yeva Domani, director of trans-led organisation Cohort, who stood in Kyiv and is the first transgender person to run for political office in Ukraine. “I pay my taxes just like anyone else and I want to represent not just people from the trans community but the whole community in the city where I was born and have lived all my life.”

Alexander Gryn is director of Zahid-Shans, a community-based organisation for people who use drugs, and a board member of the Ukrainian Network of People who Use Drugs. He stood in Ivano-Frankivsk and says he did so to challenge misconceptions.

“The mayor of this city was asked whether a gay person can be a patriot, and the mayor said no. It’s important to challenge this,” he explains. “I stood to show that people from marginalised communities – LGBTQ+ people, people who use drugs, sex workers and others – are just people. We can be patriots and be elected representatives like anyone else.”

Standing for change

Key campaign issues the candidates stood on include improving access to HIV prevention, harm reduction, social services, and other sexual and reproductive health and rights services. But is not just about representing what might be regarded as the core issues affecting people from marginalised groups. It is also about giving voice to social injustices that affect everyone living in the local community, such as the state of housing or the environment.

Standing in the elections is also about enabling those who have been disenfranchised for so long to take the first step towards full democratic representation.

“It’s about trying to get voices from marginalised communities on the first rung of governing,” Anastasiia explains. “To really make an impact on LGBTQ+ rights we need to be represented in parliament at national level, but this is the first step, it will make our road towards parliament a little easier.”

Gaining insight

Yuliia Kniaziuk, a former sex worker and Legalife member who stood in Ivano-Frankivsk says she has gained valuable insight by participating.

“We have learnt so much,” she says. “We now know from the inside how the electoral process works. We’ve made important contacts and learnt about aspects of campaigning. This knowledge is something we will take with us into the future and apply to other elections and advocacy work.”

Yuliia says it is skills learnt through the Partnership to Inspire, Transform and Connect the HIV response (PITCH) that gave her the confidence to stand.

“In the past few years PITCH has built my skills in being a leader, in working with the media, in campaigning in effective ways. Without these skills I wouldn’t have put myself forward.

“PITCH has also brought the sex work community together. Without PITCH we may have got to this point but it would have taken much longer or it may not have happened at all.”

Anastasiia echoes this: “My organisation wouldn’t exist without PITCH, and that organisation has given me the opportunity and the energy to pursue this candidacy.”

Solidarity

All three candidates say they have received significant support. They hope this will trickle down to change general attitudes towards marginalised communities in Ukraine society, while showing marginalised people that visibility is possible.

“I was surprised by the amount of support I received, not just within the community of people who use drugs but across many parts of society,” says Alexander. “Many people got in touch with me to say they support what I am saying and what I represent. I joke that if only all those people lived in my district then I would have definitely been elected.”

“Many trans people don’t vote because it is very difficult for them – their voting card does not match their face and so they face lots of difficulties when going to vote – many think ‘why add more complications to my life?’” says Anastasiia. “First of all many trans people said I must be crazy to stand but they have supported me, and in turn I hope I have shown why it is important.”

A symbolic victory

Some of these candidates have stood for election against a backdrop of abuse. They say that, whatever the final result, the very act of showing up will be a symbolic victory.

“I received threats on social media from extremist groups. People said they knew where I lived, that I should watch out,” says Anastasiia. “But threats like these are nothing new, I have experienced this sort of thing all my life, so I just threw them out the window and kept going. I am the first transgender person to stand for election in Ukraine and I am proud of that.”

All three are determined to use the knowledge gained through the process to ensure marginalised communities are even better represented in the next elections in five years’ time.

“It is important that we were heard, that we were seen, in this election,” says Alexander. “I hope our actions will inspire younger people from marginalised communities to see that they can represent themselves, that they can be the ones to make the difference.”

The Partnership to Inspire, Transform and Connect the HIV response (PITCH) is a joint partnership between Aidsfonds, Frontline AIDS and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

 

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LGBTPeople who use drugsPITCHSex workersTransgenderUkraine