Ukraine based FEMEN defies ‘sexism’ in efforts to stop human traffickers

Sabine Clappaert – WNN Features

Members of FEMEN protest in Kiev, Ukraine June 3, 2010
Members of FEMEN at a protest rally on Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine June 3, 2010. Image: FEMEN

(WNN) Kiev, UKRAINE: At first sight, few people would mark the group of topless young women protesting in the streets of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, as outspoken advocates or feminists. Garlands of flowers adorn their waist-length hair, strategically thrown forward to cover their bare breasts. But the black graffiti-style slogans that cover their arms and bellies make it crystal clear: “Ukraine is not a brothel” and “Women Power”.

Founded in Kiev in 2008 by a group of university students, FEMEN quickly became famous for their topless protests against prostitution, sex tourism and sexism, which is still rife in Ukraine today. The group has been in the news a lot lately with protests in Milan, Istanbul and Moscow and most recently to bring attention to the sloppy investigation and suspected nepotism surrounding the horrifying rape of eighteen-year-old Oksana Makar by three Ukrainian young men. The attack left Makar with burn wounds across more than half of her body. Surgeons had to amputate her arm and both feet in an attempt to save her life, but Makar was unable to pull through, dying from heart failure a little more than two weeks following her attack.

Oksana Mahar’s case is indicative of a much larger problem: women are often treated as a mere commodity in Ukraine’s patriarchal society – a fact that is exacerbated by the difficult economic climate, and human trafficking, especially for sex work, remains a serious problem. Evidence exists from a variety of sources of the widespread and increasing nature of the problem: it is estimated that 420,000 women have been trafficked out of the country in the last few years alone.

“The risks and abuses faced by trafficked women are rarely singular in nature. They are often combined in a
calculated manner to instil fear and ensure compliance with the demands of the traffickers, pimps and employers”, says an in-depth 2004 report by La Strada Ukraine with London Metropolitan University, as well as the global group known as STV – Foundation Against Trafficking in Women as well as others, on health risks to women who have been trafficked.  In the study many of the women who were victims and/or survivors of human trafficking were from the Ukraine. “Women are physically beaten to force them to have sex, raped as a psychological tactic to intimidate them into future submission, isolated to disable them psychologically, and economically deprived to create a reliance on traffickers. Women who try to rebel or reclaim portions of their independence are beaten or financially penalised – and sometimes both”, continued the report.

FEMEN also wants to tackle the negative gender stereotypes that persist in the Ukraine, whose prime minister famously defended forming an all-male cabinet with the argument that “conducting reforms is not women’s business” and where the legal minimum age for marriage is 17 years for women and 18 years for men, although Ukrainian courts can authorize marriage from the age of 14 years if it is clear that “the marriage is in the person’s interests”.

The country’s governing bodies today still reflect its entrenched patriarchy: about 7% of the Ukrainian parliament is women (compared to 22% in the British and 45% in the Swedish parliaments) and while quotas have been debated, they have never been approved.

“I have a small daughter, Katya. Katya burnt herself with boiling water. She was in the hospital for a long time. Burns were on 60% of her body. I needed to earn a lot of money for my daughter’s treatment. I didn’t want to go, I wanted to stay with my ill child, but I had no other way out. I proposed that my husband go abroad and work as a builder, but he refused”, said Ukraine mother and Kosovo refugee, Tetyana, who was brought to Italy as a trafficked woman after she had been mislead that she would receive training as a nurse with promises of ‘educational opportunities coming’, outlined details in the co-sponsored European human trafficking and health report.

FEMEN founder Anna Hutsol (1983), one of the oldest members of the protest group, is clear about her reasons for founding the organization: “FEMEN is based on the idea that girls need to be active participants in society. And by “active”, I don’t just mean “active enough to land themselves husbands”. We want more women to develop a social consciousness”, she told a Russian newspaper, adding that FEMEN is about helping to educate women about their rights.

While the organization has to date focused mainly on women’s human rights in Ukraine, its aim is to become the biggest and most influential feminist movement in Europe. Last month, the young women lead a highly publicized topless protest at Italy’s Milan Fashion Week, protesting the evils of the fashion industry with body-painted slogans such as “Fashion = fascism” and “No anorexia”. Shortly after, they took to the streets of Moscow to protest against Putin’s reelection. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov called them “young silly girls”. A few days after the protest, three members were arrested and sentenced to twelve days in jail for “disorderly conduct”.

But the organization, which counts approximately 300 members, of which only about 20 demonstrate topless, has been widely criticized for its controversial manner of gaining attention for their cause. They are also often accused by fellow Ukrainian feminists for not contributing to a positive image of Ukrainian feminism.

“This is the only way to be heard in this country,” retort FEMEN members, who refuse to apologize for their behavior and who incidentally don’t like to be called ‘feminists’.

“We use eroticism in our approach and our dress. That’s not sanctioned by feminism”, Hutsol told Natalia Antonova of Moscow News. “People sneer at us all the time: “You’re against the sex industry, but you are all dressing like sex-workers”. But Ukrainian sex workers by and large don’t own their own bodies. That’s not how it works with us. When one of our girls went topless on Independence Square, she was doing it as a radical act. And it gets people talking.”

Femen Euro2012 ad - Poland Ukraine WITHOUT Prostitution
A Femen advertisement "gets people talking" and reminds viewers that large sponsored Polish and Ukrainian sports events should be free of forced prostitution and human trafficking, especially during the EURO2012 soccer (called football in Europe) championships. the EURO2012 soccer competitions will be opening for the region in Poland and Ukraine this June 8 - July 2012. Image: Femen

But FEMEN membership has its price, just ask 21-year-old journalism student Inna Shevchenko who joined FEMEN three years ago and agreed to talk to WNN – Women News Network. “In the beginning I was worried about joining FEMEN. I knew my parents and friends wouldn’t understand; I knew I could lose my place at university, I knew I could lose my job”, Shevchenko recently told WNN. She did lose her job. “Because I protested against the government. I don’t live in a country that is interested in democracy. That’s when I joined FEMEN full-time.”

Three years later, FEMEN counts its supporters in The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, USA and even Tunis. It wants to launch a ‘women’s revolution’ in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, which is part of the Great Russian revolution of 1917.

“I truly believe that we have already started a women’s revolution,” added Shevchenko in her recent interview. “More and more women are realizing that they must stand up for what they believe in, that they must protest. Little by little, men are starting to take women’s revolution seriously too. I truly believe that by 2017 we will really see results.”

Little money but a lot of passion still goes a long way. “We don’t have money and people who can help us”, Hutsol also said recently. “We have only our body and mind so we are ready to leave our clothes for our rights…”

But regardless of their critics, or what some call “the strong-arm tactics of the Ukrainian secret service”, which once visited Hutsol’s apartment in the middle of the night for ‘preventative talks’ and threatened to “break arms and legs”, the women refuse to go quietly. They find support and funding wherever they can: in their 30,000 Facebook fans, in the funding from a German DJ known as ‘DJ Hell’, by selling trinkets online and by making and selling paintings made using their bare breasts.

Today human trafficking of women inside and outside of Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine, has continued to be on the rise with numbers that show an ongoing and critical crisis. According to the U.S. State Department, “The number of Ukrainian victims subjected to forced labor and forced prostitution within the country continued to increase”. This rise includes a rise in sex-tourism, a form of sexual exploitation common in Ukraine.

“Organized crime is largely responsible for spreading international human trafficking. Although sex trafficking—along with its correlative elements such as kidnapping, rape, physical abuse, and prostitution—is illegal in nearly every country in the world widespread greed and corruption make it possible for sex trafficking to proliferate”, says global advocates The Soroptomists. “While national and international institutions attempt to regulate and enforce anti-trafficking legislation, local police forces and governments may in fact be participating in the very sex trafficking rings they are charged in preventing”, they continue.

The problems are evident, but how is FEMEN’s message as advocates for women and their controversial method of protests on the streets being received? Numerous media reports seem to be sidestepping FEMEN’s main message.

While many debate FEMEN’s legitimacy, the women continue to stand up for what they believe and they’re doing it their way. “You have to experience protesting topless yourself to understand it,” Shevchenko tells WNN. “We have created a very iconic way of protesting naked: we always tell the girls to stand in an aggressive pose holding posters above their heads. We tell them to look straight ahead and never to look down. Although we are naked when we protest, our faces tell people ‘We are fighters’. Screaming, aggressive naked women make people very uncomfortable. Society always portrays nudity as something soft and nice, something enjoyed in private. By taking it to the streets as part of our protests we are redefining nudity and we are taking our bodies back.”

Will she still be protesting topless when she’s fifty, I ask Shevchenko. “We have more and more older women joining FEMEN as activists each day,” she smiles. “We now even have a sixty-three year-old Ukranian activist that protests topless. Yes, I can see myself doing this in forty years too.”

Then she falls silent. It crackles across the line between Kiev and Brussels. “I heard on the news today that Oksana is not breathing by herself anymore, that machines are doing it. They’re saying that if she does not improve soon, doctors will face a very hard time of making her live.”

“Every day there are many such cases of domestic violence or brutal sexism in the Ukraine. But nobody dares talk about it. Everybody just keeps quiet about it, that’s part of our culture.”

But leaving the country for more liberal shores is not an option, even for an intelligent, educated young globetrotter such as Shevchenko. “I can’t just leave. That would be like leaving a person who is dying. This country is dying. I can’t simply run away and leave it. I have to scream, I have to make sure everybody knows what is happening here. That is why I am FEMEN,” said Shevchenko.


During a showing of the ‘winners cup’ in the upcoming Euro2012 in Kiev, Ukraine, members from FEMEN take on the issue of sex-tourism in the region due to the large amount of men coming throughout Europe to see the sports events. Swedish television network (SVT), caught the FEMEN protest live with a follow-up interview to highlight the protest theme for FEMEN activists. This 1:33 min March 12, 2012 video is part of an SVT news production.


For more information on this topic:


Gender communications expert and WNN Brussels based journalist Sabine Clappaert has also published work  in De Morgen and Flanders Today (Belgium), Pink Ribbon magazine, The Bulletin, IPS News (UK/International) and Destiny Magazine (South Africa). Clappaert is dedicated to covering human rights issues and development as they intersect with women inside and outside Europe.


Additional sources for this story include the U.S. Department of State, European Commission, STV – Foundation Against Trafficking in Women, Chicago – Kent Law Review, La Strada Ukraine, London Metropolitan University and SVT – Swedish Television Network.


©2012 WNN – Women News Network
No part of this article release may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN.