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‘These six months have radically changed my life’: Helping women in difficult circumstances get a fresh start in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Trapped in an abusive relationship, Olena feared for herself and her children, and struggled to provide for them as her husband remained unemployed. Today, they have a safe living environment, and Olena* is on her way to a new career as a hairdresser after participating in a programme organized by L’Oréal cosmetics company and UNFPA.

The programme, a free course called “Beauty for All,” has to date provided 28 Ukrainian women in difficult circumstances with psychological support and professional training in hairdressing, improving their capacity for financial independence. As a result, Olena’s life is changing for the better – but it took great courage for her to start out on the path that has led her to this point.

Olena met her future husband online, where the two teenagers formed a friendship that turned into a romance. “Since we were both orphans, we didn’t have close people in our lives to talk to us about the consequences of sexual relationships, so I ended up pregnant at age 16,” Olena recalls. The two young people quickly married, but Olena didn’t learn until after she gave birth to her baby that her new husband was a drug addict.

Terrified, but nowhere to go

“Before he was always calm and balanced. Then one day he came home, picked up a frying pan and started running around the flat waving it in the air. I went numb. Apparently I had no clue who I married,” Olena says. She was terrified, but felt she had nowhere for her and her baby to go, so she decided to stay and try to accept and adapt to this new reality.

The situation for Olena became worse and worse, however. Her husband started forcing her to be intimate with him; if she refused, he would beat, strangle and threaten her. For eight years of marriage, Olena endured all kinds of violence from her husband, who kept total control over every step she took. They had four more children and struggled financially, since her husband did not have a job. In order to feed her family, Olena took any job she could. She cleaned houses and distributed newspapers and flyers on the street.

One of the families that she knew suggested that Olena leave her husband and move with her five children into a “parental house,” a church-run lodging where people in need can live with their children. But she was afraid. Her husband had repeatedly threatened Olena, telling her that if she ever dared to do something like this, she would be found dead. She feared that he would follow through on his threat, leaving nobody to take care of her children.


Participants in the ‘Beauty for All’ course at a graduation ceremony in April. Photo credit: L’Oréal

But finally a moment arrived when it became impossible to endure her situation anymore. One morning Olena woke up and realized there was nothing at home: no money, no food. She was too tired to go anywhere and seek help. Her husband was demanding breakfast. For the first time, she found herself saying everything that she’d been keeping inside. “There’s nothing to eat. Look at the children, into their hungry eyes,” she told her husband. “What was the point of giving birth to them? You’re their father, you’re supposed to take care of and protect us, not make us protect ourselves from you.”

After this turning point, Olena called her friends who had offered help earlier, and told them that she was ready to leave her husband. She could no longer cope with her situation, but she was no longer afraid either. She felt things could not get any worse than they already were.

‘On top of the world’

Olena and her children have now been living in the parental house for two and a half years. At first she worked as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten. Then she started thinking about what job would give her more flexibility to work while still taking care of her children. By chance, she came across an announcement online saying that UNFPA and L’Oréal had launched a free hairdressing course for women in difficult life circumstances.

“At first I didn’t think that I would qualify to participate,” Olena says. “So, when I did, I felt on top of the world.”

The course mentors quickly noticed Olena’s talent for hairdressing, but at first she didn’t believe them when they told her how gifted she was. But soon she received proof of her talent, and its value: Right after graduation from the course, she was offered an internship that would lead to further employment in one of the city’s most prestigious hair salons.

Dozens of Ukrainian women like Olena are receiving career training and a plan for their professional development through the “Beauty for All” programme, which is funded by the L’Oreal Foundation. Most importantly, the course offers them a safe environment in which they can see that they are talented, skilled and worthy of happiness. This gives them the confidence that they are capable of rebuilding their lives in a new way no matter their previous circumstances.

“Before the course I was very reticent, scared of big groups of people, and always kept to myself,” Olena says. “If you saw how I was before the course and how I am now, you’d be surprised how much I’ve changed. These two girls are like two different people!”

* Name has been changed to preserve privacy.