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Empowered Young Ukrainians are Key to Building a Strong Democracy

Empowered young people are the key to furthering prosperity and strengthening democracy in Ukraine. With an estimated youth unemployment rate of 20 percent and ongoing problems with brain drain, there is an urgent need to create spaces for young people to gain the skills needed to participate in the economy and communicate their priorities to their elected representatives.

As part of IRI’s mission to support greater political and civil participation in Ukraine, IRI’s Youth Civic Academy (YCA) equips Ukrainians between the ages of 15 and 17 years with the skills needed to identify goals and to cooperate over shared interest in pursuit of a greater objective. In the second installment of our series profiling YCA alumni, we meet Maria and her team, a group of anti-bullying activists in Chernihiv, Ukraine, whose taboo-busting project recently won a sizable grant from the city government. 

Maria, a 16-year old from the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, was determined to educate her community on the negative effects of school bullying. YCA seminars offered the opportunity to gain practical knowledge on civic activism and political engagement, and a space for Maria to meet and work with other young people who shared her commitment.

IRI’s Chernihiv YCA brought youth together and provided them with a toolkit necessary for building an anti-bullying project (watch the video here). The project educates the Chernihiv community on the negative impacts of bullying – such as increased psychological stress and social isolation – incurred by not just students, but also by teachers pressured by parents with bribes to raise low grades. This problem was reflected in IRI’s 2019 nationwide municipal survey, which reported a rise in perceived corrupt behavior within educational establishments across 18 of 24 surveyed cities. In Chernihiv, nine percent of respondents reported having personally paid a bribe to educational establishments in the last two years. 

Maria hosted the first seminar, “Who Is the Victim of Bullying?”  last September, and is eager to expand her efforts alongside her team and with support from Chernihiv city. With the encouragement of YCA trainers, Maria and the team submitted their project concept to the Chernihiv City Participatory Budget for direct public voting and won funding. YCA provided critical knowledge about local politics, the resources and tools to put forward a strong proposal, and the opportunity to win 80,000 hryvnias ($3,256) in funding from the city in October 2019 – all of which helped to maximize the potential for the project’s sustainability and long-term impact. 

“The YCA is a milestone in my life,” Maria said. “I learned about various projects, grants and opportunities to launch initiatives. I developed some important skills — public speaking, teamwork, introduction to political science and many other exciting things. Most importantly, I became more confident because now I know I can change something. That’s cool!” 

Maria’s success is a testament to what Ukrainian youth can achieve through local partnerships and result-oriented action. Regardless of an individual’s level of political experience and know-how, programs like the YCA can help them foster a sense of community around an issue of local significance and encourage political engagement to affect change. 

IRI will continue to support young Ukrainians like Maria in their ambition to develop innovative projects that give Ukraine’s youth a greater stake in their communities’ political and economic wellbeing and in continuing the country’s journey to self-reliance.  

Read about Kateryna Borovyk, who founded a youth center in Kamyanske, Ukraine, in the first installment of this series on IRI’s Youth Civic Academy.