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Ukraine

Angered by corruption, increasing Russian influence and a last minute U-turn on a deal which would have seen Ukraine form stronger ties with Europe, protesters from all walks of life gathered in Kiev in late November 2013. Barricades, soup kitchens and temporary shelters were erected, then streets were torn up, cobbles were thrown, weapons were brandished, shots were fired and eventually more than 70 people were killed in brutally violent clashes with the police. Consequently, last week, democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the government and fled to Russia.

With the entrance left unguarded and the Ukrainian police having declared their allegiance to the people, the protesters explored the grounds of the President’s palatial home. What they found there shocked them; covered tennis courts, a boxing ring, an aviary filled with exotic birds, a collection of cars, gold toilets, a petting zoo, a helipad, a golf course, chandeliers and lavish decor… the obscene evidence of corruption was there for all the world to see. And it did.

These images of astounding wealth, shown on news channels world-wide, are in stark contrast to the country’s current state of economic crisis. Ukraine faces near bankruptcy and requires at least $15 billion in aid. Unemployment rates are high and for those fortunate enough to be in work, the average wage is only $405 per month (306 euros or £252).

Ukraine’s interim government has scheduled a presidential election for the 25th May and hopefully Yanukovych’s replacement will have less expensive taste. That said, the culture of corruption is deeply entrenched in Ukrainian society with citizens regularly paying bribes for public services such as health care, education and policing.

In 2012, Ukraine was ranked as one of the 3 most corrupt countries in the world and even Yanukovych himself has been quoted as saying that “through corrupt dealings 10 to 15 percent of the state budget, ends up in the pockets of officials.” With this in mind, can any political figurehead be trusted to bring this to an end? What, if anything, will stop the money of Ukraine’s tax payers lining the heated indoor swimming pools of the next President?

Perhaps then, it would be better if the Presidency didn’t go to a political figurehead at all. With former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitchsko having announced his candidacy on Tuesday, this is a real possibility. Although, as is always the case with ‘celebrities in politics,’ he may fail to win votes due to lack of political experience. He may also win them for that very same reason. As a leader of the protest movement, he will also have the support of those wishing Ukraine to become more involved with Europe.

One thing is for sure, whoever takes the helm as Ukraine’s next President will have to address the issue of corruption if they are to win the confidence of the population, and it won’t be an easy task.

Written by Francesca Bassenger

© Bertrand NOËL

© Bertrand NOËL

Feminism: the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, in the 21st century, this statement should be common sense. But for some reason, the word ‘feminism’ has become a term that needs to be justified or defended. Anyone who identifies as a feminist, to many, will invoke images of bra-burning, angry, man-hating radicals who will rant to anyone who will listen about how unfair the world is to the female half of this glorious species. Let’s be clear, sexism does exist. This is a fact and, hey, it can go both ways, but let’s face it the brunt of this vice is borne by women. The fight for women’s rights has been going on for decades, and while the feminist movement has brought about significant social and legislative changes that protect women from exploitation and injustice, there is still a long way to go, and a lot more to learn.

It is interesting to observe the developments in feminist movements across the world, from protests in India against rape and other forms of violence against women to Malala advocating girls’ education in Pakistan. Then there is FEMEN. In case you haven’t heard, FEMEN is a feminist group out of Ukraine that strongly believes in ‘sextrimisim’ (a.k.a. getting naked in public and causing a ruckus) as a viable means of promoting women’s rights. You may have heard of them flashing Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the Hanover Trade Fair earlier this year, or crashing a number of fashion shows across Europe exposing their bare chests with political slogans in black ink painted across them.

While their methods are quite radical and arguably questionable, I am reluctant to throw stones just yet. Before we direct any judgment towards these ladies, let’s take a look at their ideologies, shall we? Firstly, it may or may not be important to note that this group was started by a man; Viktor Sviatsky. Initially, it is easy for skepticism to build over the legitimacy of a breast-baring feminist group based on the ideologies of a man, but bear with me.

(Officially) FEMEN was founded by Anna Hutsol in Ukraine 2008 after her eyes were opened to the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women. It all started as skimpy-dress protests but things quickly escalated into topless protests. Basically, FEMEN’s ideology is sextremism, atheism and feminism. The mission is ‘complete victory over patriarchy and all its forms which are dictatorship, religion and the sex industry.’ Their main aims are political deposition of governments that enforce political, social and economic environments hostile to women (for example those that promote Sharia law); criminalising prostitution, and banning religion from interfering in the civic, sex and reproductive lives of women. Their rationale behind going topless is that it destroys the patriarchal understanding of the meaning of female sexuality thus benefiting their revolutionary mission. These stances, naturally, will elicit debates which, at their core, pose philosophical questions.

But the more universal issues they aim to highlight are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Sex trafficking and slavery. According to recent estimates, 66000 women have undergone FGM and an additional 20000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk in the UK alone. Sex slavery is a billion dollar industry and most of the victims are women. These are real issues that need to be addressed, we can all agree on that. It’s easy to lose these important messages in the shock-factor and the media hype. Or maybe this highly aggressive form of provocation is moving people to do their research and understand these issues. Whether this later translates to actual change is up for debate.

It is true: FEMEN branches have staged a number of high-profile ‘sextremist’ acts targeting politicians, prominent religious leaders and fashion shows where they have not only exposed their sharpie-marked breasts but burnt Salafist flags and chain-sawed crucifixes whilst generally screaming at people. After effectively being driven out of Ukraine due to death threats and attacks, the organisation moved to Paris where they are now based and opened branches in 10 countries across Europe. FEMEN is now taking on the UK, calling for a radical feminist revolution on the other side of the English channel and urging British women to join the ‘naked army.’

So will British women answer their call? The British public is generally sensitive to women’s rights, at least officially. Let’s not forget the backlash that ensued from that now infamous ‘calm down dear’ gaffe by the beloved P.M. David Cameron. Due to the nature of the issues highlighted by FEMEN, there may be a number of recruits to this radical ideology but personally, I don’t believe FEMEN will be successful in the UK. Here’s why:

The political culture in the UK is very different to the political culture in Ukraine from which FEMEN was born. The avenues for expression and influencing change on these issues are a lot more accessible in the UK than in Ukraine, therefore the absolute need to take such extreme measures to prove a point is not present. The chances of affecting public opinion on women’s rights whilst topless and screaming at people on the streets of London are also pretty slim. Powerful organisations and government institutions have been set up to deal with FGM, human trafficking, domestic violence against women, and other issues. While these problems are still severe, work is being done. On the philosophical issues that affect the perception of women and their freedoms, the culture is changing, legislations in the UK have been passed to try and balance the scales. It is a matter of enforcement, perhaps law changing society. Social reforms are not going to happen overnight.

The UK is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Europe. FEMEN is not culturally diverse and doesn’t engage women from different cultural backgrounds. This is one of its greatest weaknesses. One moment they are preaching freedom for all women, but then proceed to tell Muslim women that they are oppressed and/or brainwashed if they choose to wear a Hijab. The UK is notorious for valuing political correctness. For better or worse, I seriously doubt such extreme views would ever take root here. FEMEN only recruit women that are willing to show their half-naked bodies to the world. What about those women (out of their own independent choice mind you) who are not? This is the fundamental problem with this movement. They are inadvertently defining the parameters of freedom based on their own subjective ideologies. This is why I think their movement is not going to stick with the UK majority. But hey, if they manage to get people talking about rights and fairness and justice, then that is positive news all round.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi. © Photo Bertrand NOËL.

To see more photography from Bertrand NOËL, visit the links below.

www.bertrandnoel.com
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To find out more about FEMEN visit femen.org

 

High in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains live shepherds known as ‘Gutsuls.’ In this series of stunning photographs Yurko Dyachyshyn documents their everyday lives and their work in the Carpathian meadows, or ‘Polonynas.’

The Ukrainian Carpathians border with Romania, and partially with Poland and Slovakia. Their total area is around 40 000 sq. km (almost the same size as Switzerland) with mountains reaching 2000m above sea level. The Gutsuls, who are the only Ukrainian ethnical group for which sheep-breeding has always been the main domestic activity, guide their herds high in the mountains producing cottage and brinsen cheese, just like their ancestors did hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

It is exhausting work, carried out in a traditional way, that requires both experience and physical strength. Although progress and globalisation have reached this part of the world, their daily activities remain seemingly uninfluenced by modern living. On average, the season lasts for 4-5 months, starting in May and ending in the middle of September. Often they work alongside their entire families, including the children, who work just hard. The shepherds guide their herds in all weather conditions, milk the cattle three times a day and produce cheese, brinsen, vurda and buts. They take water from springs with buckets and cook dinner on open fires. Sheep, cows and goats provide them with food and clothing. The village men climb the mountains to exchange cheese and brinsen for food products, cigarettes and alcohol. The latter is now a part of a shepherd’s everyday meal.

These days fewer and fewer Gutsuls and livestock populate the Carpathians. Neglected cattle-runs overgrow with forest and on the slopes, upon which the sheep and horses once grazed, ski resorts are built. Instead of stables and wooden huts, once inhabited by shepherds, only piles of rotten logs remain serving as a reminder of the dwindling existence of the Gutsul community and their humble and traditional way of life.

Yurko Dyachyshyn is an award-winning freelance photographer living and working in Lviv Ukraine. To see more photographs from this series as well as other work, visit his website.

www.dyachyshyn.com

Written by Yurko Dyachyshyn, edited and abridged by Francesca Bassenger. Photography © Yurko Dyachyshyn.