Beyond the Front Lines: Alona Kharchenko's Dedication to Women's Equality in Ukraine


Beyond the Front Lines: Alona Kharchenko's Dedication to Women's Equality in Ukraine
Photo: Courtesy of the Veteranka Movement

Alona Kharchenko is a former service industry professional who transitioned to social work following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Her journey reflects the resilience and dedication of women in times of crisis. Managing requests for the Veteranka Movement, a local NGO supported by UN Women promoting equal rights for women military personnel, Alona’s story unveils a transformative narrative shaped by personal experiences and a deep commitment to serving her community.

Initially working in the service industry as an accountant, saleswoman, and entrepreneur, Alona's life took a significant turn when she relocated to Kyiv five years ago. Little did she know that her path would lead her to a pivotal role in a local NGO striving for the equal rights of women military personnel. The shift in her life came with the onset of the full-scale war, catching her off-guard. Her husband, anticipating the looming conflict, introduced her to the Veteranka Movement.

"My husband was aware of the situation regarding the possible onset of a major war, unlike me. He was preparing an emergency bag, saving money. Meanwhile, I was convincing him that the Russians could not do such a thing. My daughter was in the Carpathians at that time. She was supposed to return on February 24. However, the opposite happened – on February 25, we went to her. Meanwhile, my son and grandson stayed in Mykolaiv Oblast. Russian tanks were stationed near Voznesensk (Mykolaiv Oblast), and my grandson saw them. It was a shock for me, an experience I had never had before. I screamed, begged them to leave, cried. I wanted to return to Kyiv every day. I wanted to do something here.

My emotional state was like waves – stress, relief. Everything was balancing inside me. When the Russians were driven away from Kyiv, we returned. And I realize that compared to others, I am doing well."

After spending a month in the Carpathians, where Alona was involved in weaving nets for the military, the family returned to Kyiv. Here, she began looking for civic organizations to collaborate with.

"I imagined helping children, grandmothers, working with volunteers. There have been many volunteers in our country since 2014, but unfortunately, I was not aware of the war at that time."

Alona's journey with the Veteranka Movement began as she assisted in warehouses from July 2022. Her curiosity and eagerness to contribute more led her to observe various activities within the organization. Gradually, she transitioned to handling requests from the military and civilians, eventually becoming a request manager within a month.

"Over the year, all requests gradually came to me. My personal phone gained many contacts. I became very close to many other women, and they share not only stories about their daily lives – how they live and what they do in the service – but also their personal experiences.”

The heart of Alona's work lies in managing and processing the multitude of requests received by the Veteranka Movement. She forms deep connections with the women in the military, sharing their daily lives and personal experiences. The surge in the number of women in the army, as reported by the Ministry of Defense, underscores the diverse backgrounds and professions represented among them. Alona ensures that requests, ranging from uniforms and ammunition to hygiene products and even drones, are addressed comprehensively. The organization's unique approach includes tailoring military uniforms in-house, actively involving the women in testing and providing feedback for continuous improvement. The focus of the Veteranka Movement extends beyond material support, emphasizing the importance of providing items "for the soul."

"If they ask for ammunition, medicine, hygiene products, food – I try to put everything we have in stock. I try not to ignore any requests. Everyone always wants to put a piece of home, warmth into the package to sweeten and warm them on the front line. Besides material items, we always include something «for soul» in the packages."

Since March 2022, the Veteranka Movement has fulfilled over 3000 requests from military personnel and approximately 1500 from civilians. Alona personally handles up to 150 military requests per month, highlighting the overwhelming demand for support. The stories of women in the military asking for uniforms not only for themselves but also for their brothers vividly illustrate the selflessness and camaraderie among these defenders.

Beyond military assistance, Alona extends her efforts to internally displaced persons, addressing critical needs in the aftermath of specific events like the Kakhovka Dam explosion. Humanitarian missions to the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions have become crucial aspects of the Veteranka Movement's work, providing not only essential supplies but also building materials, pumps, and boats.

The challenges of such intense and emotional work took a toll on Alona, leading to burnout in January-February 2023. The realization that she couldn't help everyone, coupled with the high demands she placed on herself, prompted a temporary step back. However, this burnout also became a catalyst for self-reflection, and Alona now finds solace in contributing to the organization's routine.

"I felt like I didn't even know what to put in the box for the military. But they explained to me that I have inflated demands on myself, and unfortunately, I can't help everyone. They sent me on vacation, and I understood what caused burnout—I expected a lot from myself, and when I faced reality, I saw that I couldn't help everyone.”

Despite the challenges, Alona draws inspiration from the diverse team at Veteranka and the women in the military. The commitment to continuous learning, as seen in their participation in the 'Basic Mediation Skills' course, keeps her motivated. Alona views her work as more than a job; it's her life and a source of pride in contributing to her country's resilience in the face of adversity.

This story is published within the framework of the UN Women project «Transformational Approaches to Achieving Gender Equality in Ukraine», supported by the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and funded by the Government of Sweden. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women.