A police colonel about her career path, sexism at work and responding to a full-scale invasion
Iryna Zalialova is a police colonel in the Ukraine National Police service. She leads the Department for Monitoring Gender Equality and efforts to combat domestic violence under the Human Rights Compliance Department. Until 2014, Zalialova lived in Horlivka and worked at the Donetsk Law Institute. When pro-Russian militants entered the Donetsk region, Zalialova and her family were forced to flee to Kyiv. Already in the capital of Ukraine, she decided to try out for the National Police: she passed the competition and got a job as a precinct officer.
On the morning of 24 February, Zalialova heard explosions. But the beginning of a full-scale war did not shock her: she and her fellow police officers were prepared for various scenarios. Zalialova didn't even think about leaving Kyiv. On that morning she went to work as normal.
“I swore an oath to the Ukrainian people, and for me these are not empty words, but an unbreakable principle. I don't remember being scared at all. My husband was very worried about me. But he accepted my decision not to leave and stayed in Kyiv himself,” Zalialova recalls.
Now she leads a department at the Human Rights Directorate at the National Police service in Ukraine. In this position, Zalialova deals with gender equality and countering domestic violence. To get her current position, Zalialova spent a long time preparing — she studied legislation in the field of human rights protection and international standards. She took all the online courses on human rights and domestic violence that she could find. She was finally chosen out of seven candidates.
“Before, when I worked as an investigator, I also had criminal cases of domestic violence. But back then, it was qualified as ‘bodily harm’, the article on ‘domestic violence’ did not exist,” Zalialova recalls.
Now, one of her tasks is to make sure that the police respond more effectively to cases of gender-based and domestic violence. They specifically teach police officers how to respond and try to convey this information to all law enforcement officers across all regions in Ukraine.
“Gender stereotypes are unfortunately everywhere. Even I admit I still have stereotypical thinking. I struggle with it, but it’s a gradual process. I think it comes from my upbringing. Since childhood, everyone is told that girls are fragile, and that they need to be protected. Men are told the opposite — don’t cry, you must be strong. It is very difficult to get rid of these stereotypes as an adult and perceive all people equally, regardless of gender,” says Zalialova.
There aren’t many women with the rank of colonel in the police service. Zalialova says that there are men who find it hard to acknowledge her rank. “I met a fellow police officer at an event once, I was wearing a uniform with shoulder straps. But he was still very surprised to learn of my rank. Until I said it out loud, his mind refused to believe it, even though he could see my shoulder straps,” she says.
Recent statistics show that approximately 27 percent of the Ukrainian police are women. Five years ago, there were significantly fewer. Every year, the number of women in the security sector increases, but there are still very few female leaders — for example, only 16 percent of leaders in the police service are women.
“I feel that the situation is changing. No one doubts that women in the police are just as important as men. What matters is how well you do your job. From the very beginning of the war, female police officers in heavy bulletproof vests have been standing at checkpoints in any weather, just like the men. We have female explosives technicians in the police who clear the territory and female special forces. This doesn’t surprise anyone anymore,” says Zalialova. “A full-scale war has changed me, I feel stronger, more resilient. I started making decisions faster because there is no time to think during the war. I don’t consider myself a superhero — I’m an ordinary woman, and there are millions of women like me out there,” she adds.
Read the full version of Iryna Zalyalova's story on the Hromadske website.
This article was created in collaboration with Hromadske under the UN Women Ukraine project “Decentralization Reforms and Community Security: Transformative Approaches to Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Ukraine” funded by the Danish government.