Behind the scenes of the Ukrainian drama series, Those Who Stayed. A woman stands with her back to the photographer, holding a clapper board, as they prepare to film an episode.

Sharing Her-Story: Women in a War Zone .

The USAID Transformation Communications Activity is sharing stories that change the way society perceives women in war zones.

Hands in the shape of a heart alongside the words Women's Month

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the lives of ordinary people were instantly changed. Yet, like many stories about conflict-affected countries, the stories regarding the conflict in Ukraine often highlighted women as victims rather than centering women’s leadership, resilience, and diverse experiences during war.

The USAID Transformation Communications Activity (TCA) is committed to changing this portrayal of women by bringing the stories of strong, brave women in war zones to the forefront. These stories defy gender stereotypes and illustrate how women experience childbirth and childcare in challenging circumstances while pursuing professional endeavors and showing strength and resilience — contributing to positive perceptions and breaking down social barriers that limit women’s potential.

TCA partners with the Ukrainian government, the private sector, and civil society to increase the resilience of Ukraine’s democracy through innovative communications initiatives that engage Ukrainians in dialogue about the country’s democratic transformation and European integration. This engagement is in part achieved through broadening the use of social impact content by Ukraine’s civic leaders and creative sector to address social issues and counter disinformation through positive, fact-based narratives. Since its inception in June 2020, TCA has supported the development of 143 social impact content works, including films and television series that achieved remarkable success in Ukraine and internationally. Sharing Ukrainian culture globally and conveying impactful themes helps to spark societal dialogue. These content pieces do more than just break box-office records; they  change perceptions by placing women at the center of many different stories.

Svitlana Mickiewicz is one of the women featured in this social impact content. Although many people can imagine the excitement and anticipation of preparing to welcome a child into the world, conflict shaped Svitlana’s experience. She gave birth on the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and was determined to overcome the situation she unexpectedly found herself in: “I was already looking for someone to help me in the parking [lot] because I was sure no doctor would go to the maternity ward under the explosions.” Svitlana’s story of courage under fire is captured in a documentary supported by TCA entitled Life Goes On (Madonna), as is Mariana Mamanova’s story. Mariana, a military medic and Azovstal defender, has often had to exercise bravery. This quality certainly came to the fore when she was held captive in inhumane conditions in a colony in Olenivka for six months during her pregnancy and gave birth only a few days after her release. Life Goes On (Madonna) was shown on May 13, 2023, on national television in Ukraine and on YouTube, bringing the story of these and other resilient women courageously navigating pregnancy and birth in a war-torn country to 366,000 viewers.

Mariana Mamanova holds her baby in front of her, both of them smiling at the camera.
A promotional photo of Mariana Mamanova and her baby. Image supplied by the USAID Transformation Communication Activity.

Balancing a career and motherhood is difficult in the best of times and even more challenging under extreme conditions such as war. For Yulia* and Nastya,* the challenge of raising their son, Vovchyk*, during this war is compounded by the complexities surrounding the rights of same-sex families in Ukraine. Those Who Stayed (titled The First Days in Ukrainian), developed with TCA’s support, is a unique six-episode drama series inspired by real events that unfolded during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Kyiv in February 2022 and explores the strength of those who stayed in Ukraine. The series showcases Yulia’s resolve to remain in Ukraine despite the war, continuing her work as a doctor. Her story also highlights the challenges faced by Nastya, who is not Vovchyk’s biological mother and has no legal entitlements or protections for travel with her family — a barrier facing same-sex couples in Ukraine, particularly in this context of limited wartime mobility. In November 2023, the series was released on Netflix in Ukraine and 19 European countries and began rolling out on television in 12 European countries, Canada, and Japan. In Ukraine, focus groups assessing the series expressed reservations regarding seeing same-sex couples on television. Their reservations underscore the significance of such content in promoting more inclusive attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in Ukraine. TCA has responded to this bias by studying how viewers in Ukraine react to LGBTQIA+ themes in content and how to portray LGBTQI+ people in a way that reduces stigma and promotes acceptance.

A young boy and a woman sit on the floor of a parking garage, leaning against a pillar. Both are holding small dogs, and there are bags on the floor beside them.
A scene from Those Who Stayed featuring Vovchyk (played by Oleksandr Ladyka) and Nastya (played by Oksana Zhdanova). Image supplied by the USAID Transformation Communication Activity.

Whereas The First Days shares the incredible stories of those who stayed in Ukraine, the information campaign Unbreakable Because We Are United has illuminated remarkable examples of those who returned, like Ksenia Voznitsyna. The director of the Center for Mental Health and Rehabilitation of Veterans, Ksenia arrived in Washington, D.C., to take up an internship at a U.S. veterans’ hospital the day before war broke out in Ukraine. When she heard the news of Russia’s invasion, there was no question in her mind that she should return home. After a lengthy ticketing process, she found herself at the border on March 1, 2022: “I remember walking alone toward Ukraine when thousands of people were leaving. As the director of a medical center that works with veterans and as a doctor, I could not do otherwise.” Ksenia’s story was included in the information campaign Unbreakable Because We Are United, initiated by the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security and supported by TCA. The campaign’s frank and emotional stories of brave Ukrainians are now helping others hold on to hope. This campaign has reached over 254,000 people.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has seen the Russian military targeting civilians and led to the loss of numerous lives and injuries to thousands of people, including women, children, and the elderly. At the same time, Russian disinformation campaigns continue to spread false or misleading information and narratives to undermine the international community’s support for Ukraine and to destabilize Ukrainian society’s resilience. Telling stories like Svitlana’s, Mariana’s, or Ksenia’s changes the narrative about women’s experiences in conflict-affected countries and attests to women’s courage and resilience. Women’s wartime experiences are often overlooked or underrepresented, with the media often focusing on men’s roles as fighters. By highlighting women’s experiences, contributions, challenges, and resilience, TCA has brought visibility to the stories less often told, shining light on women’s significant and diverse roles during the war.

*Not their real names.