Oksana Pitsyk is often told she has been lucky – but she disagrees. “I do not believe in pure luck,” the head of Smidynska council in western Ukraine says in a soft but firm voice. “Any success, even a small one, is the result of hard work.”
This type of belief has carried this slight but energetic woman far. Raised in a large family with limited means, she won a full scholarship to study in Lutsk in Volyn Oblast at the age of 14. Trained as a biologist, she never planned to go into politics. But in 2015, much to her surprise, she became head of Smidyn NGO, which was funded to receive a United Nations Development Programme’s grant to renovate the local kindergarten and the playground.
“Everyone was invited to the initial meeting. I walked in as a resident and walked out as president,” laughs the 32-year-old who until then had been coordinating activities in the local school where her two children of nine and seven study. Other projects followed, bringing life and hope to a rural community over 500 kilometres from the capital Kyiv, where not all roads are asphalted and some homes lack in-house toilets.
It was the beginning of a career change. Two years later Pitsyk was elected head of the local self-government in Smidynka, a hromada (community) of six villages which recently merged as part of Ukraine’s decentralisation process which since 2014 has given small communities like Pitsyk’s additional powers and resources to push their local development.
As the first female local council leader, she is used to fighting stereotypes about her age and gender. “When I was campaigning in October 2017 I met a group of residents and I saw the scepticism on their faces,” she recalls. “A man said, ‘You are a child. How are you going to lead our community?’ I stressed the moral values that my parents passed on to my brothers and sisters. He and the others stayed to listen to me, and I understood that I could make it.”
She is in a minority. Women make up for half of the population in Ukraine but their representation in decision-making roles remain low – in 2018 women only accounted for 17 percent of the heads of local self-government.
Deeply rooted gender stereotypes cause women to be the first to doubt that they can succeed, notes Pitsyk. “Everyone can cook borshch, even men, but not everyone can manage a hromada. That ability does not depend on whether you are a man or a woman.”
Those are not the only attitudes she has to confront. “The decentralisation reform empowered small hromadas like ours, but it is not always a smooth ride,” reflects Pitsyk. “The Soviet mentality of waiting for the state to do it all for you is still very much alive… People do not trust the national government, they have heard the word ‘reforms’ too many times. But they can trust local authorities, because we all know each other, we are part of the same hromada.”
Using those ties is key, as she first discovered when working at the NGO. “In 2016, we decided to organise a general clean-up of Smidyn ahead of Easter. We had one coordinator in each of the five village neighbourhoods, but the former local head actually encouraged residents not to do anything. They did not listen and the village was beautifully cleaned.”
In her current role, even ostensibly minor decisions like replacing an orchard of old and unproductive apple trees with new saplings can be unpopular. “It requires a lot of patience and negotiations,” the biologist-turned-administrator smiles.
One of the biggest challenges in this agricultural region is persuading small farmers to work collectively, given the economic benefits of forming cooperatives. “It is a painful point,” she adds. “You say cooperative and people hear Soviet kolkhoz. It will take some time to communicate the benefits of independent farmers working together.”
Her inspiration is surprising – Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female prime minister, who remains a polarising figure. “Thatcher was controversial, but she had the courage to take and implement unpopular decisions that she knew would benefit the population in the long term,” she says as she types a message on the phone-messaging group she set up with other local female activists – the “Thatcher group.”
The journey has been bumpy, just like the road connecting the villages to larger cities such as Lutsk – it takes over two hours to drive the 100 kilometres to the regional capital.
“Ask people what their main problem is, and they would say ‘the road’,” she adds. “But I think it is depopulation.” As employment opportunities are lacking, residents, mainly men, travel to Poland, a mere 40 kilometres away, in ever-larger numbers in search of work. Pitsyk knows this far too well – her husband is among them. As an administrator she is lobbying to get businesses to set up shop in the hromada territory to stimulate the economy.
“Many people simply think that I receive sacks of cash delivered to my office,” she gestures. “But if businesses come and work, the road will follow.” In fact, a lot has been done already. The hromada’s budget has grown to UAH 20 million, of which UAH 4,5 million are its own revenues, coming mainly from land leases. Residents can access a health clinic and a school for children up to the age of 16, plus a post office, an ATM and a police station.
As she walks along the banks of the nearby lake, she explains how they are developing the area – an open-air gym and playground have just been installed, while a decked area with stalls and a picnic facility will follow. In her efforts she is supported by Volyn Local Government Development Centre through trainings and advice. From workshops on gender-responsive budgeting to seminars for smart development of amalgamated hromadas and training in the secrets of Facebook, Pitsyk is on her way to transforming the municipality as consummately as is possible.
Asked to assess her political journey, she flips the question. “I do not consider myself a politician,” she says, “but rather an administrator. I do not identify with any political faction. My people and my community are my party: I respond to them.”
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