The Idealists: Ukraine's New Policewomen

Photos and Text by Misha Friedman

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In the years after its 2014 revolution, Ukraine began the process of reforming one of its most oppressive institutions: its police force.

Before the recent revolution, the police were seen as bullies, crooks and murderers, to be avoided by civilians at all costs. Among their other calls for change, protesters demanded the complete transformation of the law enforcement system.

Interestingly, two women are at the forefront of this effort: Eka Zguladze, the first deputy interior minister, and Khatia Dekanoidze, the country’s national police chief. In addition to improving training programs and introducing new uniforms, they have also overseen a rapid increase in the hiring of female police officers.

Once there were almost no women in police uniform, and now about a quarter of the officers are women. This is significant in a country where gender equality is a distant dream. Many jobs are still considered too demanding for women, so seeing women in uniform on a regular basis could be a first step toward changing social attitudes.

It is also intended to address the epidemic of violence against women. Some 90 percent of reported cases of violence in Ukraine are against women — and it’s estimated that only a quarter of the victims of domestic violence even dare to report the crime.

There are fears that domestic abuse is becoming even more common, as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder return home from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. By hiring more female police officers, Ms. Zguladze and Ms. Dekanoidze hope to encourage more women to seek help.

While taking photographs in Kiev, I witnessed female patrol officers defuse a potentially dangerous situation just by arriving at the scene and calming everyone down, including other police officers. The hope is that they can build trust with a community scarred by decades under the intimidating forces of the Soviet and post-Soviet era.

The stakes are high: Rule of law and the people’s trust in the new system — their sense that last year’s protests meant something — hang in the balance.