Lilia Sheina works as the coordinator of Female Entrepreneurship School program in Kharkiv. The goal of this program is quite unusual: helping vulnerable women and women victimized by domestic violence start an own business. We asked Lilia about how this project came into being and how it actually helped the women who participated in it.
Female Entrepreneurship School is implemented by Professional Development of Kharkiv Foundation as part of Center for Gender Culture as a Platform of Enhancing the Rights and Opportunities for Women and the Youth, a project funded by the European Union.
The foundation I work with implements specifically educational projects and programs in cooperation with many international partners, like UNICEF, GIZ and others.
I graduated from Kharkiv National University, majoring in sociology, but never worked in this field.
I joined the foundation after passing competitive selection. This foundation is a civil society organization boasting a wonderful team of professionals whom I have great pleasure to work with, an excellent group and the team leader who gives room for implementation of your fantasies, concerning social projects, that is.
I dealt with gender aspects before: there was a coordination council for implementation of gender and family policy in Kharkiv, and I was a member of it. After that, there were some job “somersaults”, and I was “led” back to gender projects. Perhaps it has to do with my personal story, because my first place of employment was Kharkiv Correctional Colony No 43, at Kharkiv Tractor Factory, as I was receiving education as a Criminal Enforcement Department representative. I studied tuition-free on an assignment from the penitentiary service, so after graduating from university, I had to work a certain number of years in civil service. Since I hail from the Donetsk Oblast and continued to stay in Kharkiv after graduation from university, it was quite problematic to get a job specifically in my field of specialization. The Penitentiary Service Department offered me a job not in the field I majored in but as a specialist in the security department, until there will be a vacancy that could suit my education. A year later, such a vacancy has appeared, but I was denied the job: “You’re a young woman and you have recently married; you might take maternity leave soon, and nobody wants to hold the job for you but we’ll have to. Sorry!”
Back then, I was very upset about that, so I quit. I never regretted this decision ever since, even though my mother lamented: “Oh, dear! That’s the job in your field of specialization, what are you doing?” Analyzing this situation today, I realize that it became the starting point of my further progress. Seriously, does it matter whether it’s a man or a woman, if the person is a true professional or has the necessary knowledge and skills, and has the desire to learn something new?
Why the topic of domestic violence? There was no personal trigger here. After learning about the project’s target audience, many friends and acquaintances of mine were joking: “You husband’s battering you? Drinking? C’mon, tell us!”
There was even a situation once, when during a webinar for the School’s participants I came on the air after a sleepless night, with a very tired look (I get insomnia from time to time), and one of the participants wrote me a personal message: “Are you all right? If you all of a sudden have a problem like we do, you just wink to us to let us know, and we’ll think about how to help you.”
Fortunately, my husband is a wonderful man who supports me in everything, in all my deeds. He jokes when asked whether he batters his wife.
My “driver” with regard to domestic violence hails, to a certain degree, from my childhood.
We had unquiet neighbors. And almost every week, the neighbor girl, a friend of mine, would come to my parents, crying, because her father was beating her mother.
My parents would come over there and break them up – I saw it. And even then, I already knew that it’s not right. I asked myself a question why in my family everything is civilized and in theirs is different, the way it is.
Unfortunately, many women believe that domestic violence is normal, because they see that in their families in the first place. Our society is still dominated by prejudices: “God suffered a lot and willed that suffering should be out lot”, “Grandma suffered, mother suffered, and you should, too”, “How could the son grow without the father?” I also heard this phrase from a friend of mine: “I grew up without the father, and I won’t let my child grow without the father”. It is important to understand that until a woman realizes herself that she needs help, nobody will ever be able to help her, no matter how hard they try.
Naturally, you will carry over all problems from your childhood, if you saw something like that in your family, into your own family. If battering, or the fact that the mom is not working because the dad forbids her to work, was considered normal in the girl’s family, it will also be considered normal in the newly-established own family of that girl. But at the same time, there are girls who grew up in a normal family but got on the abuser’s hook.
It often happens that a woman marries a quiet, caring, wonderful man who is actually an excellent manipulator gradually depriving his victim of social ties (forbidding her to communicate with “bad” friends under pretext of care), of money (forbidding her to work under the same pretext), of self-confidence (suggesting to lose/gain some weight; hinting that there is something wrong with her appearance/mind/wits). And while we continue to believe that it can’t be, for many women it’s the reality of their lives.
Well, let’s not talk about the bad anymore. Let me now tell you more about the project itself.
In the beginning, this project was intended for women vulnerable due to their ethnicity and for internally displaced women from the Donbas and Crimea.
Why women and business? A while ago, I spoke to a friend of mine who wanted to create a business, and she had a prejudice that nothing will come out of it.
Just imagine! The woman herself – smart, educated – had a prejudice that she might fail because she’s a woman, surrounded by men, by sharks – they’re smarter and stronger, they know better, better catch things, and people have more trust in them.
That was how the idea was born to create a course specifically for women, to help them write that very business plan and do financial planning, to teach them how to bring investments in their business, give them self-confidence, confidence in their power and ideas, work out their fears and prejudices with a psychologist.
Why was this project designed for vulnerable women (IDPs and based on ethnicity)?
As I said earlier, I hail from the Donetsk Oblast. The War in Donbas continues for six years already, and the first years created a bad image of people who had to flee the war to Kharkiv, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. This image is still trailing them, and female IDPs find it difficult to not only build an own business but even find a job in principle. It’s even harder for them in moral sense, when you lost everything and have to start anew from scratch. There is a fear that it might not work out, that you might invest your last money in your business and, after going bust, you’ll lose everything again.
Initially, women like that were the project’s target audience, but then came the quarantine and media began to report the increasing level of domestic violence. People were deprived of communication at work and with friends; tension was growing, and many relieved it by using force.
We did not expect the number of applications to be large. After all, it was going to be an online course. It started in May, when the quarantine was in place for two months already, and people were fed up with online courses. I recorded a promo video of our course and posted it on my Facebook page, telling that this project is for those whose house became an iron cage during the quarantine.
According to the project’s terms, we had to select only 10 participants. I thought that it will be some 20-30 applications, but in the end, we received about a hundred of them. It was very hard to select 10 participants only from among such a large number of applicants, and at the same time, we could not accept a half or even a third of them, because all experts of our project work with every participant on an individual basis, so we chose 15 participants. We reviewed and selected applications together with a psychologist. Not only our target audience had to meet the vulnerability criteria – the participants should have had business ideas to work out during the course.
There were a lot of applications from young women who were ready to do everything just to get distracted from what was going on at home. We provided consultations from a psychologist to these women. The first personal, inner difficulties appeared at the selection stage: I wanted to take them all and at once, so it was very hard to turn down those who did not pass the selection.
There was one unexpected thing that happened during the project: when I was phoning the applicants to talk to them, a man answered the phone…
The applicant was a female. I checked the number again, but it was a man who picked up the phone. So, I was carefully trying to find out whether I dialed a wrong number. And I heard: “No, that’s the right number, but it’s very important for me to know whom my wife socializes with. I see the unfamiliar number, so I want to know what she signed up for and what you are going to do over there.”
Personally, I was perplexed by such a twist (although I know by now that with the target audience our project has, this situation was rather an ordinary occurrence), and began to tell him that we are a women’s course, that it’s about beauty, personal care, and something else… And he goes: “Oh, I also use personal care, so perhaps you’ll sign me up as well?” So, all my attempts to somehow get in touch with the woman who sent an application were thwarted by the phrase: “You tell me, and I will tell her.”
But eventually, she phoned me back herself. We talked about what happened, and she explained that things like that do happen in her reality: social media are checked, and her phone calls and social ties are also checked.
And after the end of the project’s first stream, there was a situation which cannot be considered difficult, but which caused anxiety in me and the huge feeling of responsibility for the participant. Several weeks after defending her business plan, a participant phoned me and said that she’s immensely grateful to our project for the changes that took place in her life. The woman finally decided to divorce. She nursed this idea for some five years, thinking about termination of her matrimony, and finally, she made up her mind, realizing that her man will never change. Today, she lives and works in Kyiv, and want to develop her business idea there as well. The woman is happy about the metamorphoses that happened to her thanks to our project.
What other difficulties were there? The participants could not do everything at the first attempt. The School’s program includes a financial planning block, where everything must be clearly written down. Some participants had difficulty with that, and wanted to give up. But individual work with speakers helped them.
Some of these women, two or three participants, realized that running a business is not for them. They developed their business plan, made good financial planning, but did not defend their project, having decided that their time has not come yet. I consider it a good indicator, too.
Why do I do it? I love people.
I want peace in the whole world. Of course, it’s a utopian fantasy. I think that the more love you give, the more of it you generate. I believe that everyone deserves something better, especially the one who strives for changes. And if I can help someone, if I have resources and the person really wants to get that help, why not?
Even one token of gratitude, one positive change in the person’s life is worth working and spending my time, resources and love.
As of today, nine out of the 15 women have defended their projects, and three of these projects are up and running well. One woman, an IDP, found a business partner who invested in her business, and that participant was able to open a footwear store. She has been living in Kharkiv for three years, and has been nursing the idea of that store for quite a while, but she had no money and no knowledge how to get the money. In our course, we do not provide financing to start a business, but we have several modules on grant writing and on working with partners and investors. We develop in the participants the skills of bringing investments in their business by writing grants and working with investments. We give them the understanding of how to work with an investor, how to work with a partner, and what an investor wants to see in your business plan in order to finance it.
Our project ends in September, but we have a plan for providing full mentorship support to our participants during a year. If they have some problems in their business, with reporting, with taxes or with writing grant applications, they can contact us. The speakers who participated in our project will help them with everything, and absolutely free of charge.
We do not leave our participants behind.
What should those who want to change something in their life start with? The first step is to leave the abuser…
I believe that the first thing you should do right away is to leave behind the one who makes you distrust yourself and feel unsure of yourself. Every person, every man and every woman is a treasure. Nobody has the right to make you feel that you can’t do something or that you aren’t worth something.