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Ukraine’s First Lady discusses the war’s human cost with EBRD President

By EBRD  Press Office

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As Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine enters its second year, Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, and EBRD President, Odile Renaud-Basso, met on video to talk about the human cost of the war on Ukraine, and the importance of protecting and rebuilding not only the country’s infrastructure and economy but also its strong human capital.  

In a discussion moderated by the EBRD’s Director for Gender and Economic Inclusion, Barbara Rambousek, Mrs Zelenska highlighted the need to heal the psychological scars being inflicted on Ukrainians, and the work she and the Olena Zelenska Foundation, which she set up last year, are doing to help.  

Since the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, a quarter of Ukrainians have fled their homes, either abroad as refugees or to relative safety inside Ukraine as internally displaced people. With most men staying to fight, half of all families are separated, leaving women to shoulder the responsibility of providing for their families, both financially and in relation to care.  Restoring equilibrium and preserving human capital across the gender divide is essential both now and post-war; the uncertainty takes its toll on mental health.  

Describing the loss of dignity and sense of who you are that comes with being displaced, Mrs Zelenska said: “Apart from the fact that Ukrainian women are raped, killed and tortured – a terrible side of this war – all women live under constant stress. The change of role and of social status, and of the place where they live is a massive pressure for every woman.” 

She set up the Olena Zelenska Foundation because “very often I was asked when I was abroad: ‘We want to help Ukrainians. How can we do that?’ I thought I could be the mediator. The foundation brings together those people who want to provide assistance and the ones who require it. This is what we need today, right now, to make it possible for every person who needs help to survive this terrible period.” 

The foundation works in three sectors: education, medicine and humanitarian assistance. Work on mental health and providing physical access for those with disabilities – including helping people in wheelchairs get to air raid shelters, under the Barriers Free initiative – is a key part of the job. (Currently only 20 per cent of people with reduced mobility can access a bomb shelter.) 

Its current priority project is finding a home for every orphan and supporting small family-type orphanages. Today there are approximately 25,000 children in big orphanages and boarding houses in Ukraine. Another 10,000 children are in family-type orphanages. Many have been displaced by the war. 

Mrs Zelenska’s work dovetails with that of the EBRD, Ukraine’s biggest institutional investor, which has pledged to invest €3 billion in 2022-23 and has already deployed €1.7 billion in 2022.  

The EBRD’s focus, as President Renaud-Basso explained, is on the real economy – keeping the lights and heating on and the trains running, and supporting the private sector. For instance, EBRD funding helped the electricity transmission company Ukrenergo make emergency repairs to civil infrastructure under heavy bombardment by Russia through the autumn. The Bank has also helped the company to introduce urgent workforce crisis management measures to close gaps resulting from the large-scale displacement of staff, and to offer mental health support to managers and workers.  

The EBRD’s investments fully integrate a strong focus on protecting livelihoods, people and jobs, and strengthening human capital resilience. It is the skills, ingenuity and determination of all Ukrainians that enable the country to persevere during this time of war, and that form the foundation for its long-term recovery, reconstruction and sustainable future.   

“We've assessed that 21 out of 23 investments we've done this year all have a human capital component … Human capital is absolutely key for the country to be able to win the war,” said President Renaud-Basso.  

Mrs Zelenska had a strong message of hope and appreciation of the EBRD’s support:  

“Many people said to us that Ukraine would not survive this winter, but we are now in the second day of spring. And not only have we survived, we've renewed quite a lot of businesses. You can't possibly imagine how happy I am to see that there is light in the apartments and in the streets. We forgot what it's like to have the streets lit up and we are very grateful to our partners. We managed to survive this winter thanks to you. You're doing a lot. Let's continue, with the same speed and same support.” 

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