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Alone under siege: how older women are being left behind in Ukraine | Global development

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Halyna Vasylivna lives alone in a tiny “Khrushchevka” flat. At 94, she has outlived her sons and her husband, and her grandchildren live outside the city.

Her apartment, named after the Soviet leader under whom the five-storey buildings in Kyiv’s Podil district were built, is too far from the bunker so she hides in her pantry during airstrikes.

Vasylivna is grateful for her social worker Olya’s visits a few times a week. She wishes she did not live alone. “It’s important to have someone who can listen to you,” she says.

Vasylivna is one of 2 million older women in Ukraine who have remained largely invisible to authorities. Most of Ukraine’s elderly people are women – they make up two-thirds of those aged over 65 and 71% of those aged above 75 – partly because Ukraine has the sixth highest proportion of women in the world.

These women are reliant on tiny state pensions (Vasylivna’s is about £130 a month), and require support from social services, charities and international institutions. They have become the group most likely to be alone, whether through mobility issues, bereavement or a reluctance to leave familiar surroundings. The lucky few get help; many do not. Ukraine’s health and social care system was already under pressure before Russia invaded in February.

Despite progress through reforms, including decentralisation that allowed regional institutions to allocate budgets locally, an overstretched and underfunded health system is again in crisis. Ukraine’s expenditure on healthcare has declined from 7.8% of GDP in 2015 to 7.1% in 2019 (the last available data). The world average was 9.8% in 2019. Now the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, with dozens of accounts of rape and murder of Ukrainian elderly women – the biggest group left behind, of those allowed to leave, and least able to escape.

In Kyiv’s Holosiyevo district, there are 786 elderly people – 80% of them women like Vasylivna – alone, unable to leave their homes, and without relatives to care for them. Since Russia attacked, the number of social workers in the local centre has collapsed by more than 75%. Those women who remain are mostly elderly themselves, and now have four times as many clients to look after. They work five days a week, earning about £170 a month to supplement their small state pensions. “We need to support both our elderly clients and ourselves,” says 65-year-old social worker Nataliya Bodnar.

A small flat with old-fashioned wallpaper and a door open to show a pantry beyond.
A door opens to the pantry where Halyna Vasylivna hides during airstrike alerts. Photograph: Courtesy of Akas

Social centre manager, Oksana Ruban, says they have faced multiple challenges. “Public transport was closed, the curfew lasted sometimes up to several days, shops closed, too. We had to make sure all of our clients were taken care of by someone – if not relatives or us, at least by neighbours or volunteers. We all worked relentlessly.”

The situation for older people is particularly acute in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where a survey of more than 1,500 over-60s conducted in March revealed the scale of the problem: 99% do not want to leave their homes; 91% need help to get food; 91% are also experiencing extreme cold, with no heating due to electricity cuts; 75% need basic hygiene items; and 34% need urgent medication for chronic illness. These needs are exacerbated by a shortage of vital medicines and Russia destroying healthcare facilities.

“I wonder why some young people evacuate their cats and hamsters, but leave their parents behind,” says Roman Vodyanyk, head doctor at Severodonetsk hospital in Luhansk, the only functioning hospital left in the city. With no water, gas or electricity in Severodonetsk, Vodyanyk has turned the hospital, which has more than 50 patients, into a humanitarian hub, providing hot food, wifi and medical support. About 220 patients have left in the past month, but many elderly people have no desire to evacuate, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

“How do you evacuate a hospital in this situation? How do you leave them all behind?” asks Vodyanyk. So despite the shelling and along with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers, he is not leaving either.

Elderly people are often the forgotten category in any humanitarian crisis – an analysis of Google news search keywords between 24 February and 22 April found that 97% of all Ukraine-headlined articles that mentioned either children or the elderly were focused on children. Only 3% mentioned elderly people, of which only three touched on elderly women. Despite there being more than 50% more retirees in Ukraine than children under 15, the 390 UK NGOs operating in Ukraine are nearly twice as likely to be helping children than elderly people,

According to Justin Derbyshire, CEO of HelpAge International, the problem is global: elderly patients’ specific needs are neglected by governments and international bodies during and after wars. “This is systemic ageism and an example of how bad the global system is at responding to older people’s needs.”

A portrait of Halyna Vasylivna sitting in her flat
‘I would evacuate if I could take care of myself’: Vasylivna, 94. Photograph: Courtesy of Akas

Elderly people, such as Vasylivna and Bodnar, are at the centre of the crisis in Ukraine, as victims and rescuers. After a lifetime of looking after others, they are now vulnerable, not only to loneliness and hunger, but also to rape and murder.

“I’ve seen everything – the Holodomor [great famine of 1932-33], the second world war, so many horrors. What else could scare me?” says Vasylivna. She never imagined Russia would invade. It is her inability to take care of herself that scares her now. She feels trapped. “I would evacuate if I could take care of myself. I was working my whole life. It’s such a shame I can’t do anything any more.”

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Ukraine war: The luck of the Ukrainian oligarchs is beginning to change | Economy and Business

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In the room of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in his residence on the outskirts of Kyiv, there is no trace of the Picassos or the Aivazovskys that used to hang on its walls. What does remain are the gigantic empty dressing rooms where the president’s girlfriend once had a space with capacity for a thousand rings. There were also many, many television sets. In the ample residence where the couple lived more than comfortably, there were up to 18 Samsung sets, sometimes several in the same room. Books, on the other hand, were practically non-existent.

However, the most valuable objects – works of art, furniture, jewelry – are no longer here. The former president took them in his hasty flight to Russia during the 2014 Maidan uprising that would change the country’s history. Anyone who is curious can see on YouTube how Yanukovych’s assistants loaded trucks for three days in order to get the spoils from so many years of looting out of the country. After his departure, shocked citizens entered the mansion to discover the shameless ostentation in which their leader had lived.

The mansion where Yanukovych spent his days of relaxation is much more than a house. Not only because the 150 hectares of the Mezhyhirya estate housed a zoo (with the friendly ostriches that are still there today, undaunted by the distress that Ukraine is experiencing), a museum with the luxury cars that the former president collected, a heliport, a tennis court, two huge golf courses, a spa with several saunas and 40 pieces of sports equipment, a shooting range, endless fountains and lakes, and even an artificial mountain complete with a waterfall. All this, just for the man who ruled Ukraine and his girlfriend. If his children visited, they slept in another house. Russian President Vladimir Putin also had another residence in the complex, in case he ever went to Kyiv. And at banquets with many diners, a dining boat received the guests. “During construction, it was estimated that each day of work cost $2 million. It would be impossible to calculate the value of all this,” certifies the guide Genadii Nikolaenko.

Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.Vitaliy Holovin – Corbis (Corbis via Getty Images)

Since his flight to Russia, Yanukovych has been an outcast in Ukraine. But Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch who sponsored his political career, catapulting him to the top, is still the first fortune of his country, with a wealth that Forbes estimated last year at about $7.6 billion. Akhmetov is the most prominent name in the list of Ukrainian oligarchs who control the country through a network of companies and connections. However, luck seems to be changing for this select group.

A dangerous mix

Several factors threaten the position of the men who, until now, have defined the map of power, and who also managed to create political parties that obeyed their personal interests. On the one hand, the war launched by Russia is striking some vital nerves in their finances. On the other, the simultaneous political pressure from Kyiv and Brussels threatens to hurt them even more; a dangerous mix for those who filled their pockets with the privatizations of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“To understand the role of the oligarchs, it is enough to think of medieval Europe, with kings who competed for power with feudal lords,” explains Volodimir Yermolenko, director of the Ukraine World website, from a placid terrace in Kyiv. This journalist admits that the excessive power of this small number of people is a burden for the country, but he also believes that, to a certain extent, the competition between the powerful entails a kind of balance game that prevents the authoritarian drift of the country that a single leader would imply, as is the case in Russia, where all the oligarchs are subject to the will of the Kremlin.

Akhmetov is the owner, among many other things, of Azovstal, the steel mill that gained worldwide notoriety for becoming the last point of resistance against the Russians in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine. This gigantic complex, one of the sources of Akhmetov’s fortune, generated tens of thousands of jobs, produced 40% of the country’s steel and had its own port at the Sea of Azov.

The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.
The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.Luis Doncel

In May, the tycoon who used to boast privileged ties to Moscow – and who sponsored Yanukovych – announced a $17-20 billion dollar lawsuit against Russia for the destruction of the plant and other assets in the Donbas area. Some analysts estimate that Akhmetov has lost two-thirds of his fortune since the beginning of the war. But for many businessmen the problems are not new; they began in 2014, with the seizure of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas. “The key to seeing if they will recover their former power will be in how the reconstruction tasks are executed and who is entrusted with them,” says a European source. Another oligarch who’s fallen from grace is Viktor Medvedchuk, the Ukrainian billionaire closest to Putin; he was arrested in April accused of “high treason” by the Kyiv authorities.

Zelenskiy’s crusade

The oligarchs are not only haunted by financial problems. Perhaps more dangerous for their interests is the political crusade against them. In November 2021, before the Russian troops entered with force and fire, President Volodimir Zelenskiy had already promoted a law to reduce the weight of the tycoons, a group that included some 40 people with an industry monopoly, media outlets, a fortune of more than $90 million, and who take part in political activities. Some critical voices pointed out that, with this initiative, Zelenskiy was not seeking to balance the map of power, but rather to undermine the influence of former President Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskiy himself also has a group of oligarchs around him.

In addition to leading the opposition, Poroshenko is one of the richest men in the country thanks to an empire of candy, cars, media outlets and much more. The tycoon faces up to 15 years in prison for high treason, for the purchase of coal from the pro-Russian separatists of Donetsk, as well as other charges of corruption, trials that he sees as politically motivated.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, last week Poroshenko made the case for demanding responsibility from those “who ruin the country by stealing billions of euros.” Reminded that he too is an oligarch, he angrily protested. “Please don’t use that word!” he exclaimed. “We are in a war right now. And who has stayed here to defend their country, and who has fled? Who is spending their money to support the army and who is stealing? Who pays their taxes and who doesn’t?” His spokesmen assure that he has invested more than €10 million out of his own pocket to help defend Ukraine.

The pressure also comes from Brussels, who wants to get its hands on the Ukrainian super-millionaires. When approving the country’s candidacy to join the EU, the European Commission demanded seven chapters of reforms, one of them to advance the anti-oligarch law. But this must be done, according to Brussels, avoiding arbitrariness. The document also recalled the “disproportionate” influence of these businessmen on the media, especially on television.

Before the war, the gardens that witnessed Yanukovych’s excesses were full of families having picnics. This place, which the guide considers “the heart of Ukraine” due to a story that goes back to the 12th century when a monastery was founded there, is now a public museum and it also served as a refuge when Russian troops approached Kyiv. But it also symbolizes the rise and fall of the man who wanted to control the entire country. Yanukovych, in the words of the journalist Yermolenko, tried to be king and feudal lord at the same time. The question is whether the oligarchs who accompanied him in his career will know how to adapt to a new era of an increasingly European Ukraine, or if they will fall by the wayside.

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Bolivia’s corrupt system failed to stem femicide. Now, feminists are fighting back | Women’s rights and gender equality

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In parts of La Paz, every surface is papered with layers of bleached and peeling posters: adverts for events, jobs, apartments – and missing women.

In 2021, there were at least 108 femicides in Bolivia, among the highest rates in South America. Many of the perpetrators are either never caught, not punished or go free soon after.

In January, fresh outrage was prompted by the case of Richard Choque, a serial rapist and murderer who was given house arrest and then continued to commit crimes. The wave of fury prompted by the scandal has since driven Bolivia’s feminist collectives to spectacular measures in an effort to force government action against femicides – and the corrupt justice system that allows them.

It started with perhaps the biggest feminist protest seen in El Alto, the one-time satellite city that now flows into La Paz. The march began outside Choque’s house in El Alto and culminated at the courts of justice, where activists covered the walls with graffiti, red paint and the names of unpunished rapists and murderers.

“We wanted to redirect the discourse,” said María Galindo, founder of Mujeres Creando, a feminist collective in La Paz. “For it not to be a discourse of victimhood, nor a tabloid nor a police discourse. Because what Richard Choque shows is that the central problem is state corruption. This man was a prisoner, and yet he went free.”

Large board with posters of missing women plastered all over.
At the bus terminal in La Paz, there is a large wall with posters of missing women, adolescents and children, many of whom are never found alive. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Galindo has since proved the sharp point of the pressure campaign on the government.

She took to barging into state institutions and putting civil servants on the spot, livestreamed on social media. The one-liners she whipped them with went viral on TikTok. Then she teased a run to be Bolivia’s ombudsman – before tearing her application up in front of the cameras, in a typically flamboyant outfit of fishnet leggings, black eyeshadow and irreverent takes on patriotic symbols, not least a giant crown capped with an Andean condor.

Meanwhile, Mujeres Creando catalogued ignored reports of gender violence and investigated San Pedro prison, where Choque ought to have been held. They found a system of corruption, where inmates bought privileges including house arrest.

In response, the government set up a commission to re-evaluate cases like Choque’s, which, though extreme, was not unique. Twenty-one others released to house arrest inappropriately have since been reincarcerated, while another 50 arrest warrants have been issued. Eighteen judges are facing criminal proceedings and more than 300 of their cases are being re-evaluated.

Parents of the teenage girls murdered and buried in the home of accused femicide suspect Richard Choque.
Parents of the teenage girls murdered and buried in the home of Richard Choque. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Such numbers come as no surprise to activists in La Paz and El Alto where gender violence has been accentuated by two factors, said writer Quya Reyn. First, the absence of the state, which creates insecurity. And second, the fact that the city draws migrants – many of them young women – from across Bolivia’s western highlands.

These women are vulnerable to abuse. “If you go to [the centre], you’ll find posters looking for nannies, looking for women to work in restaurants,” said Reyna. “And they are always looking for women – only women.”

“You see this with Richard Choque,” Reyna added. “He would go on Facebook and say that he could offer work. These young women were murdered looking for work.”

In 2013, the government introduced Law 348, which, among other things, made femicide a crime punishable by 30 years in prison – Bolivia’s maximum sentence.

The law was welcomed as progressive legislation at the time, and Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto, believes the text remains generally sound – the problem is implementation.

First, there is a lack of resources. “Right now, there aren’t enough judges, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough investigators.”

Then there’s corruption, as demonstrated by the case of Choque. “The entire justice system is corrupt – not just with regard to crimes against women.” Guzmán notes that this discriminates most against the poor.

There is some scepticism that the government’s commission will address these root problems.

Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto.
Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto. Photograph: Sara Aliaga Ticona/The Guardian

Galindo, for one, views the commission as an attempt to deflate their pressure campaign. “It’s for the media. It’s a commission that serves to make declarations, not effective policies.”

Meanwhile Guzmán says that it was limited from the start, since it is only reviewing a fraction of gender violence cases. “For it to really be a historic commission, and not a ridiculous one – because it is ridiculous that the state has created a commission to return those to prison who should already be there – the commission needs to finish with a proposal to reform justice and the state.”

Among Bolivia’s feminists there are varying views on how that sort of reform will be achieved.

“The system has to be changed with huge social pressure,” said Galindo. “And we’re building a movement to achieve that.” She believes the campaign Mujeres Creando has led over the last months has strengthened their social legitimacy: “No one can buy us. We are incorruptible.”

But Guzmán is sceptical that this movement reaches much beyond the urban middle classes. And the true forces in Bolivia, says Guzmán, are the campesino and Indigenous organisations. “Within them, feminism isn’t a thing. There are lots of prejudices against feminism.”

In El Alto, meanwhile, Reyna pointed to the lack of feminists in politics pushing for reform. She believes change will come when a new, diverse generation of women enter government and shape it from within.

“I don’t want to fight the state,” said Reyna. “I want to be the state.”

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Forty-six migrants found dead inside abandoned trailer in San Antonio, Texas | USA

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The bodies of at least 46 migrants were found on Monday inside an abandoned tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, around 155 miles (250 km) from the border with Mexico. The finding has been confirmed by local authorities.

The vehicle was found next to the railroad tracks in the southwestern part of the city, according to local media reports. Emergency services rescued at least 16 other people who were still alive inside the trailer, including four children, and sent them to hospital for treatment.

This is not the first time that San Antonio experiences such a tragedy, although it is the deadliest in memory. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a local Walmart, and in 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that a Mexican official was on his way to the site. “We still don’t know their nationalities,” specified a spokesperson for Mexican Foreign Affairs. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to meet with Joe Biden at the White House in July, and migration will feature prominently on the agenda. The recently concluded Americas Summit also sought to address growing migration flows to the US, largely from Mexico and Central America.

Monday’s was the latest human tragedy involving busy irregular immigration routes. May broke records for illegal crossings into the US with more than 239,000. The largest access point is through the border shared by Mexico and the State of Texas. This intense migratory flow has created a problem for Joe Biden and the Democrats, who will go to the polls in November in midterm elections with immigration policy as one of the issues of most concern for voters.

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