Committing to Women’s Safety in a Time of War
Ukrainian women have lost their homes. That doesn’t mean they have to lose their rights.
The overwhelming majority of those fleeing the war in Ukraine are women. They are Elinas who have just found out they are expecting a baby. Anichkas who have barely left the partner that has been putting them through hell. Bohdanas who have recently been given a diagnosis of chronic disease. Dayanas who have merely decided to get an IUD.
As air raid sirens ring out and missiles soar overhead, they tuck their stories in hastily packed bags and carry them across the border. But as soon as they reach safety and it is time to unpack, all that has been stowed away returns to the surface. The Elinas and Anichkas and Bohdanas and Dayanas find themselves in need of a support which they don’t know where to get.
This is a scenario that prompted Commit Global, an organization designing digital solutions for social good, to think up a platform capable of providing or carving the way to that specific support. The team partnered with Centrul FILIA, one of the most active women’s rights organizations in Romania, and together with the ANAIS Association and the Independent Association of Midwives, they created a safe space for all female refugees arriving from Ukraine. Its name is Women Center, and it is an example of the bridges that trust and collaboration can build.
The first humanitarian ecosystem of its kind
By the time the war in Ukraine broke out, Commit Global had already responded to a number of crises. Having started out as Code for Romania, the organization had spent the better part of the previous 6 years developing digital solutions for issues ranging from disaster relief to civic engagement. Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it had lent its support to the Romanian government to build an entire ecosystem aimed at informing people about the latest number of infections and the latest sanitary measures in place.
It was that experience, along with the processes and tools it had generated, that enabled the team to deploy its first humanitarian solution within 48 hours from the beginning of the invasion. Dopomoha, they called it. The Ukrainian word for help.
All you needed to use it was an internet browser. In turn, the platform provided verified, up-to-date information about temporary protection, asylum applications or means of support in other European countries. The goal, says Humanitarian Task Force Coordinator Yvonna Țăranu-Hofnăr, was for those seeking refuge to know exactly what to expect every step of the way, and in doing so, to regain a sense of control. Up to now, more than 1.5 million people have turned to Dopomoha, either to help or to get help.
Un Acoperiș (One Roof) and Sprijin de Urgență (Emergency Support), two additional solutions ensuring safe access to housing, products and services followed suit. As the war raged on, however, it became clear that people’s needs were shifting. What had initially been put on hold, be it work, education or socialization, now had to be resumed in the receiving country. And what had not been put on hold, but merely pushed aside in the urgency of escaping immediate danger, eventually returned to the fore.
So it was that Women Center emerged, rounding off what was already recognized as the first humanitarian ecosystem of its kind.
From a one-stop solution to a companion for women’s needs
If Dopomoha is a refugee’s first lifeline, a general solution for urgent administrative support, Women Center is the specialised companion that delivers tactful gender-specific assistance. On this platform, regardless of whether they speak Ukrainian, Russian, English or Romanian, female refugees can read up on how to detect domestic violence, harassment or bullying. They can look into the rights they have if confronted with such problems or the steps they need to follow to navigate the local health or safety system. Most notably, they can ask for individualised help, both through a form that covers the most frequent inquiries and via email. Within 24 hours, they can be sure to receive a reply.
The swiftness of the intervention is largely due to the ongoing dialogue between the organizations that are contributing to Women Center, as well as the clearly defined roles that each of them takes on. While Commit Global is in charge of the design and maintenance of the platform, its partner associations draw on their year-long experience with women in vulnerable situations to provide timely information, critical resources and sometimes even services.
“They write the content in a conversational tone, so that it doesn’t feel like we are setting the rules,” says Olivia Vereha, Vice-president of Product at Commit Global. “They also make sure to avoid triggers when describing traumatic experiences.” The point, she explains, is to show the women who access the platform that behind it “is another group of women, a group they can trust because it resembles their own”. This trust and accountability are especially relevant in a crisis where many are eager to help, but not as many possess the means to do so in a structured, risk-free way. In fact, international organisations have been quick to point out that Ukrainian refugees are at a high risk of trafficking and exploitation.
However, with most of the inquiries concerning reproductive health, a truthful representation of the hurdles women face when trying to access such services is equally important, says Andrada Cilibiu, Administrative Assistant at Centrul FILIA. “We do not shy away from presenting the complex bureaucracy or how difficult it is to get an abortion on request.” In the end, realistic expectations are key to making informed decisions, and Romania’s healthcare system is not particularly accommodating when it comes to women’s needs. Only in the last three years, more than 300 women have had unsafe abortions. Half of the women who have reached childbearing age use no method of contraception, and doctors resort to C-sections in approximately 60% of all births (twice the EU average), despite the higher risk of complications and longer recovery periods.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the platform designed by Commit Global has reached not only hundreds of women seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine, but also swaths of Romanians looking for information otherwise difficult to obtain. Driven by the response, the team has recently added a feedback form where people can share their experience with public services. Their insights should drive lasting change in a country which is still, by comparison with Ukraine’s other neighbours, one of the safest destinations in terms of reproductive care.
Women Center, the lifeline that should go global
When faced with a crisis as overwhelming as a war, it is easy to think that whatever you do is insignificant. Yet the experience of Women Center shows that it is not. “Each message we receive where people tell us about how useful the platform has been and how it helped them fix their problem is another confirmation that a well-designed and managed resource can make a world of difference,” Vereha says. “Being able to translate into a website the feeling that someone out there has got your back is the type of assistance we need to see in every single humanitarian intervention.”
Knowing this, Commit Global has already made steps to transfer Women Center beyond Romania’s borders. Moldova is at the top of the list, with the corresponding platform almost ready for deployment. Bulgaria and Poland are also on the cards. What makes the process smoother is the way the team approaches every solution it develops – namely, with an eye on replicability and adaptability. The humanitarian ecosystem itself has benefited from it, as Un Acoperiș (One Roof) was based on the architecture of a previous solution offering medical guidance services to Romanian patients.
In the case of Women Center, replicability and adaptability mean, quite literally, redeploying the platform in other countries and adjusting its content in keeping with local legislation. The main challenge hereby lies in identifying those partner organizations which, similarly to their Romanian counterparts, are visible and experienced enough to provide uninterrupted support to female refugees.
After all, we now know that the war in Ukraine is not a sprint. It is a marathon.