• The face of Ukraine's police force is changing. (SBS Dateline)
Women were banned from 450 jobs in Ukraine, but now the police force is leading the way on gender reform. They’re recruiting frontline female officers in a bid to change their brutal and bloody reputation.
Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 21:30

It’s drizzling rain as officers assemble in rows outside the Ivano-Frankivsk police station in western Ukraine. The only hint of colour for this twilight roll call comes from the green walls of the former Soviet headquarters – and even then it’s more like grey green.

But amongst the asphalt and puddles and the officers grouped in black I spy the unmistakable glow of a peroxide blonde bob, perfectly straightened, beneath a police cap.

I’m watching squadron commander Irina Zelinskaya, 31, as she calls the evening’s patrol police to attention and all the while leads a quiet revolution. She’s a member of a unique group, the first group of women recruited in 2015 to work on the frontlines for the country’s new-look National Police of Ukraine. Now she’s risen through the ranks to lead 177 officers, most of them men.

Watching Irina at work, it’s clear Ukraine is at the heart of the most exciting region in the world right now for leaps in gender equality.

“We needed to change something in this country, we needed to start lifting her up… and lifting her up somehow with our own hands,” she says, her round face levelling with me – as serious as it is optimistic.

“Press for progress” is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 – and in Eastern Europe that’s exactly what women like Irina are doing.

A little context is important to note here.

Across the globe the gender gap actually widened last year – for the first time since the World Economic Forum’s annual report on the matter began in 2006.

Among the western nations meant to be leading the world, it shows progress has largely stagnated. (Despite the protests, the hashtags, and high-profile lawsuits, the United States actually slid backwards in the gender equality rankings dropping from 45th to 49th place).

But in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 18 out of 26 countries have tightened the gender gap compared to the year before. It’s now ranked the third best region in the world for gender equality (behind Western Europe and North America).

Coming in at number 61 on the ladder, Ukraine may not rank highly – but it has jumped 8 places in just one year.

A relatively small change on the scoreboard, for sure, but it’s revolutionary change on the ground and indicates huge cultural shifts in a country formerly controlled by the macho Soviet Union – where old laws and attitudes have for decades (if not centuries) been shaped by entrenched gender discrimination.

This change is being driven by a totally new generation of millennial Ukrainians who came of age with 2014’s bloody Maidan revolution. After ousting their Russian-backed President, four years on they are continuing to rewrite the country’s future by putting women to the front.

Driven by women across all levels of society – from the top by those inside parliament down to others working new occupations on the street – there is a clear-eyed effort to drive a stake in the country’s Soviet past and push for EU integration.

The country’s police reforms are being spearheaded by another young woman – the country’s 26 year-old (yes, that’s not a typo) Deputy Interior Minister Anastasia Deeva.

The old Soviet-era national police, known as militsiya, were notorious as one of Ukraine’s most corrupted and brutal institutions. Only 5 per cent of the force were women, and they mostly worked desk jobs. Now, thanks to police reforms, the number of women has increased to 15 per cent, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Gender Advisor, Olena Davis.

Today they’re working their way through its ranks arriving in high level, frontline positions. Women like Irina Zelinskaya are anything from street patrol officers to battalion commanders.

“It's a dramatic change,” says Anastasia Deeva, looking through her Instagram chic glasses. “You can't say that this is only about smiles or new uniforms. It is about your feeling of respect.”

She’s not exaggerating.

Before last year, Ukraine was home to old Soviet-era laws banning women from working 456 jobs (the ban was originally aimed at protecting their reproductive health). It meant as recently as last year, women couldn’t legally work as train drivers, carpenters, lumberjacks, divers, firefighters or gas welders and 450 other professions. Other laws also banned women working at night.

At the end of last year, the country’s Health Ministry finally overturned the laws – after tireless efforts by a group of female parliamentarians (led by Deputy Interior Minister Anastasia Deeva) who formed a Gender Caucus within the Kiev’s old halls of power.

Now, Ukraine outranks Australia on the global gender gap ladder for women’s economic participation and opportunity.

This increase in women in employment and decision making roles is now seeing a tide of legal and cultural shifts in Ukraine’s society.

The Ukrainian parliament has finally approved laws that criminalise domestic violence – something police used to turn a blind eye to, viewing it as a family matter to be kept behind closed doors.

It’s a huge deal. Especially since in the very same year, Russia, Ukraine’s old cultural forefather, de-criminalised domestic violence.

The World Economic Forum’s report says it will take another 128 years to fully close the gender gap in this part of the world.

But since 2014, Ukrainian women have been introducing new laws and overturning old ones, even though 83.5 of the parliament’s seats are still held by men. And it’s taken them just four years.

“When you are certain of yourself, you can 100 per cent stand on your own,” Irina tells me before I leave. “If you feel enough strength in your muscles and in your brain, you can do great things.”

Despite the mountain before them, Ukraine’s women are already “pressing for progress”. In doing so, they’re fulfilling another familiar war-cry – proving the country’s future is female.

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


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Reporter: Calliste Weitenberg

Producer: Kylie Grey

Camera: Ben Foley

Research: Michael Friedman

Fixer: Alla Koshlyak, Grigory Kuznetsov

Editor: Simon Phegan


IRINA ZELINSKAYA, POLICE COMMANDER (Translation):  When you are sure of yourself, you can 100% take on any opponent at all.  If you feel enough strength in your muscles and in your brain, you can do great things. 

Today Irina Zelinskaya is getting ready to enforce the law.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Long life to you officers!

OFFICERS (Translation):  Long life!

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  I'm glad to greet you at the HQ in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk .

Commanding 177 officers, most of them men, this 31-year-old mum is the face of a remarkable transition taking place in Ukraine today.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Your bullet proof vests…They are a must. Do not forget them. The moment that window came, when I was given the chance to hook up with the new reform and work for the police. There was one thing that I understood. I was coming to work for a system that wanted to change our country and bring about something better. 

Three years ago a female commander like Irina would have been unthinkable here. Only 5% of the police force were female, and most of them did desk jobs. Now they're on the front line, part of an entirely new arm of the police that's changing Soviet traditions. Known as the Patrol Police, their mission is to win back the trust of the public.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  These cars that are protesting and driving around...they drove into here...It’s our own town hall. So what I need you to do is line up one by one and drive out.

In our culture, women have always been the homemakers. It might sound extreme but in most cases it’s true.

REPORTER:  Do people ever say women should be at home making borsch?

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Oh yeah.”‘You are a blonde’. You know nothing. What are you doing coming here?” 

The main thing is how you react to it, in psychology there is such a technique called mirroring.  You imagine there is a sheet of glass in front of you and that man is talking to himself. So you just stand there smiling and it irritates them no end.

Ukraine's police force was once infamous as one of the country's most sexist and corrupt institutions, known for taking bribes and brutality. It's something that Irina's determined to change.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Please be careful and talk to people who are taking part in the protest. This way there will be no conflict between us.

MAN (Translation):  You know we don’t have a conflict with you people.

REPORTER:  Do you have a good relationship with the public here?

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  We try to understand each other. If we are aggressive with them, they will respond aggressively.

Watching Irina at work just now, it's clear she's a bit of a star about town. People engage with her, she's friendly, they seem to like her. Perhaps that's the sign of the biggest changes that are being made with these reforms. The public seem to genuinely trust Irina.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  We needed to change something in this country, we needed to start lifting her up… somehow with our own hands.

People's trust in the government and the law broke during the 2014 Maidan revolution. The old police, known as the Militsiya, killed more than 100 unarmed civilians. After decades of impunity and corruption, Euromaidan became a bloody watershed event which left Ukrainians angry, demanding change.  It can't be easy then for Irina being at the coal face of reforms, especially when she believes so passionately in them.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Here’s Mum cooking you the vareniki you asked for.

LYUDMILA ZELINSKAYA, MOTHER (Translation):  Vareniki to order… Ukranian dumplings with potatoes, with our beloved spuds. And my wish is for her personal life to work out.  I want her to meet her prince.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Ok let’s just have some food.  Start eating, otherwise I am going to be married off right now…I just don’t know to whom.

Single and the bread winner for her family, Irina's an image of modern Ukraine. She sees her role in the Patrol Police as part of a much bigger battle to break free of Russia which is still waging war to maintain control in the country's east.

LYUDMILA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  In our own country we didn't have the right to say that we loved Ukraine and that we didn’t need any other country, that we were the masters of our country.

Irina's family are from Donetsk. Their home was just 100km from the contested border with Russia. There, her brother was tortured by Russian separatists simply for flying a Ukrainian flag.

LYUDMILA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Then the militia took him away and put him in a cell. They handcuffed him, tied some cloth over his head and kept him in a cell for 5 days. 

After this, the family fled to Kiev, just as the government announced the Patrol Police. Irina was one of the very first females to sign up.

LYUDMILA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  There is this saying, "Every cloud has a silver lining."

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Not ‘thanks to’ but ‘because of’…

LYUDMILA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  It is because of that conflict that we started moving forward faster and we are having reforms…and I believe that we are going to see our country prosper.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  I believe that the tiny amount of effort I put into this, could be the last drop in the glass that may change everything in our country for the better, and turn us into a truly developed country. 

REPORTER:  Toast to you.


These young female police officers are the face of one of the biggest reforms in Ukraine today. They've got new uniforms, they look great but how significant is the change that's taking place? I want to see how Patrol Police like Irina are being trained. Can they do more than just change the force's image?

At this university in Dnipro, the walls of the old Soviet regime hold many Cold War secrets. But inside, thousands of women are learning new tactics, funded and designed by the West. These recruits are the next wave of officers following in Irina's footsteps.

YULIA, RECRUIT (Translation):  My name is Yulia, I’m 21 years old.

NATALIA, RECRUIT (Translation):  I’m Natalia, I am from Kiev.

RECRUIT (Translation):  What I want to learn is what methods to use that would work in a domestic violence incident.

A modern police force is a step towards a modern Ukraine. The new Patrol Police are being paid more than their predecessors. They're also learning very different policing methods. Today they're being taught how to respond to domestic violence callouts.

OKSANA KORDONSKA, RECRUIT (Translation):  The book says one thing, but reality is totally different.

WOMAN, RECRUIT (Translation):  Utterly different.

Domestic violence is a major problem, thought to affect more than half of Ukrainian homes. But only around 10% of victims dare to report the crime. It's hoped training female officers will help victims speak out.

LECTURER (Translation):  What I mean is that most of the time, family violence occurs when the person is, let’s say, intoxicated. Those of you who have gone out all know that.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): The difficult thing is that our task is not only to punish, but also to protect the victim.

30-year-old Oksana is a former banker and wrestler. And Ilona, 28 used to be a kindergarten teacher. They're being tested in a simulated role play.

MAN (Translation):  Three steps back! Move, three steps back!

As Patrol Police, they need to de-escalate the situation without using force.

GIRL (Translation):  Help, please!

ILONA GAVRISH, RECRUIT (Translation):  What’s going on?  Please get out of the way. Please step aside.

BOY (Translation):  Leave my mum alone!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Calm down. Please sit down. Dear sir, please, calm down. Is this happening often?

BOY (Translation):  Very often.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Very often!  102 calling 103 I am a patrol police inspector, patrol Police Lieutenant, Gavriusheva, and we need an ambulance. 

One of the biggest challenges for Ilona and Oksana are Soviet attitudes and laws. Domestic violence is seen as a private matter between families. Overcoming attitudes like this will be one of their biggest obstacles.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): Unfortunately, the only form of punishment our law has is community work. In general, it is not tough punishment and the people, the offenders, are not that afraid of it. That makes it difficult for us.

At the Patrol Police headquarters in Kiev, it's change over hour and Oksana and Ilona are preparing for duty.

ALEXANDER ANATOLIEVICH, POLICE OFFICER (Translation):  I can feed her from my palm, like a horse.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation):  You’re the horse. Sasha, please contact team 201.

REPORTER:  How is it different working with a woman as opposed to a man in the patrol police?

ALEXANDER ANATOLIEVICH (Translation):  The only difference is that if you get in a particular situation where you need a lot of physical strength, that’s where it is better to have another guy at your side.

Callouts tonight could range from stolen phones to murders. But domestic violence is becoming more common as soldiers with post- traumatic stress return home from the conflict in the country's east.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Number 252 is in the area. Reporting in. Good evening to everyone.

The suburb of Darnitsa is one of Kiev's worst affected areas. Ilona and her boss Ruslan know it will be a busy night.

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  Yesterday we had 18 call-outs.

TRANSLATOR (Translation): Wow, that’s a lot!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  That’s the minimum.

It's not yet 10:00pm and they're called to their first incident.

WOMAN (Translation):  Can you see the crowd of people? She is walking around behind them.

MAN (Translation):  There they are, he is in a wheelchair!

WOMAN (Translation):  You fucking scum!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Hush.

WOMAN (Translation):  You talk shit!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Hush, madam.

WOMAN (Translation):  Why are you talking shit, scum?

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  That’s how it is with her.

WOMAN (Translation):  Take this, bitch!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Quite!

WOMAN (Translation):  I’m alive and I will go on living!

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Stop it. Please sit down…

REPORTER:  Have you guys been drinking tonight?

MAN (Translation):   Us? All we did today was inject. Painkillers for my leg. Don’t think badly of me.

Ilona confronts domestic violence cases like this every patrol. It's one of 90,000 cases registered in Ukraine each year.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  They are husband and wife, they had a family row. The woman cut her veins, but the ambulance has already treated her. The paramedics have already given her medical assistance. Words are our main weapon, we try to minimise the use of special equipment, not to mention tough approaches. 

As Ilona manages to calm one couple down, in another part of Darnitsa, Oksana is called to a stand-off between families.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): Who called the police?

MAN (Translation):  That guy over there.

Neighbours have called police because a father was drink driving.

FATHER (Translation):  It was my birthday and I had every right to drink.

ALEXANDER ANATOLIEVICH (Translation):  Were you behind the wheel?

FATHER (Translation):  Did you catch me driving?


Oksana has to make sure the situation doesn't escalate, especially because there are children around.

FATHER (Translation): Should I say sorry for just being here in the middle of the street?

LADY (Translation):  He was behind the wheel!

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): Young lady, please quiten down. Young lady, are you listening to me?

LADY (Translation): Listen, you bastard, you drunk bastard!

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation):  Don’t worry, we will be finished soon.

The longer it takes to issue a fine, the bigger the crowd here gets. We've been asked to sit inside the car because the main offender is quite nervous about the camera right now and the situation is really quite tense. The main offender has turned out to be a known criminal with some drug charges and previous traffic offences. It's really obvious how things in this area could potentially get out of hand quite quickly.

REPORTER:  How difficult is it to handle these kinds of situations when everyone's really drunk?

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): It's hard. People do not control their emotions and they can change their behaviours at any moment or their thoughts, or anything actually. They're unpredictable and they can be aggressive. 

For Oksana's patrol partner Alexander, having a female partner in this situation isn't ideal.

ALEXANDER ANATOLIEVICH (Translation):  His support has arriving and this is one of those cases… remember you asked me about the difference between having a male and female partner? In this case a male officer would have been better but on the other hand she is coping with the situation.

Every move the Patrol Police make out here is being judged. Ilona's next challenge is another domestic violence incident at a family's apartment. She knows her boss Ruslan will be watching how well she handles the situation.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Patrol police, please open the door. Please open the door.

WOMAN (Translation):  Yes, of course. One moment. Hello.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Was it you who called/

WOMAN (Translation):  Yes.

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  What’s going on up there?

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Please calm down and tell us what has happened.

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  Do you have kids?

WOMAN (Translation):  Yes.

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  How old is the child?

WOMAN (Translation):  Six.

It's a heart breaking situation. A mother has tried to leave with her daughter and says she's been hurt. But she doesn't want police to go inside.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Please, tell us, what do you think - will it worsen the family situation or give you a chance..

WOMAN (Translation):   Worsen it. He refuses to give me my child.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Now, what about an ambulance? Shall we call one?

WOMAN (Translation):  I did, to record my injuries.

Ilona needs to get an official record of the woman's injuries to involve social services. But the woman is too anxious and it quickly becomes apparent why.

MAN (Translation):  Go home, don’t shame us.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  This must be the husband. Step aside.

MAN (Translation):  Don’t be a disgrace, you have a child at home.

WOMAN (Translation):  Don’t touch me.

MAN (Translation):  Don’t demean us. Take a look. Look what’s…

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Step aside for a moment.

As the woman leaves for a nearby hospital, Ilona and Ruslan check the house for signs of physical abuse. But find nothing. Unless the woman files a statement, they're powerless to take any action.

REPORTER:  How do you think Ilona handled that situation?

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  What do I think? I have a wonderful partner and I think she did great.

ILONA GAVRISH (Translation):  Thanks.

RUSLAN DOVGAL (Translation):  She is someone who can establish good lines of communication with other people. With both offenders and victims, as in that situation.

Despite the good work of officers like Ilona and Oksana, the reforms have a long way to go if Patrol Police are to respond effectively to gender violence and help change this country's future. Ukraine remains the most corrupt country in Europe. Change will take reforming not just police ranks but the country's laws, prosecutors and social policy. And it's a 26-year-old woman who's taking it on.

ANASTASIA DEEVA, DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER (Translation):  I’d like to say that all of us present here in this room, I hope, understand that domestic violence is a crime.  For us, this is the bedrock all the other types of violence within the society grow. 

Anastasia Deeva is Ukraine's deputy interior minister. Having worked her way through the ranks of the very ministry that once ran the old Militsiya, today she's rallying female decision-makers to extend gender reforms beyond the Patrol Police.

REPORTER:   What's the most frustrating thing for you in your daily mission to overhaul this giant institution?

ANASTASIA DEEVA:  The system is changing. This is why I think it's too early to speak about how do you see, what do you think and what happened? We have a very unique chance to change our country and we need to do it right here and right now.

REPORTER:  Some people say that you've just created a kind of parallel police force alongside the old one which is still very much business as usual. Is that the case?

ANASTASIA DEEVA:  You can't change the whole system, a very big law enforcement system, in one day.

REPORTER:  Is it a pretty face and a nice smile and a new uniform enough to really tackle corruption?

ANASTASIA DEEVA: That's not about new uniform and smile only, because if we're speaking about Patrol Police, the previous which was traffic police or road police, they were the most corrupted institution in the whole of Ukraine. Patrol Police is zero corruption. Maybe not zero, always 1% or 2% which is always in any country, but it's a dramatic change. You need personalities. You need strong personalities and individuals who will carry on and continue with all those new reforms and values. I believe injection has been made and now it's starting to work.

Back at the Patrol Police headquarters in Kiev, it's graduation day.  And after two years of service, it's Oksana's turn to rise through the ranks.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation): lieutenant Kordonska reports for promotion.

OFFICER (Translation):  Congratulations.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation):  Thank you.

OFFICER (Translation):   Proceed.

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation):  I serve the people of Ukraine. I am now a senior police lieutenant in the patrol police in the city of Kiev, the patrol police directorate.

REPORTER:  And how does it feel to finally become a senior lieutenant?

OKSANA KORDONSKA (Translation):  It's a beautiful feeling. I've never been a senior lieutenant; I'm going to see what it is like.

When this program began, just 19% of Kiev residents approved. One year on, thanks to the work of women like Irina and Oksana, trust in the Patrol Police has spiked to 60% and continues to grow. But everyone knows reform is a very long game.

IRINA ZELINSKAYA (Translation):  Initially, we were full of rosy hopes that everything was going to be cool, well, then we went into the streets and we had to face the reality.  Things were not as good as we’d thought. But it's great that it's begun.  It's only though painstaking work that we will be able to see in a while, whether that reform is going to work in the end or not.




calliste weitenberg


story producer

kylie grey



ben foley



michael friedman


story editor

simon phegan



elena mikhailik


6th March 2018