Director of Strategic Development
Ukrainian Women’s Fund, Ukraine
Ms. Karbowska has more than 18 years of experience in protecting women’s rights and promoting gender equality in Ukraine and internationally. Since 1997, Natalia has been working in the area of civil society development and women’s rights, first as the Women’s Program Director of the Open Society Institute in Ukraine, then as the Deputy Director and later Director of Women’s Economic Empowerment Project at Winrock International, followed by her position as Deputy Director of USAID’s Healthy women of Ukraine Program, and presently as a Director of Strategic Development for the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF).
Prior to joining the UWF as a staff member Natalia served as UWF’s Chair of the Board for more than seven years. Under her leadership, the Fund has provided more than $1.6 million in grants to women’s rights NGOs in Ukraine and neighbor countries – Moldova and Belarus. As a Chair of the Board of the UWF, Natalia contributed to significant growth in fundraising and grant making. The Fund started in 2000 with the budget of $10,000 and has increased their budget by almost 100 times. But most importantly, UWF now has a wide network of grantees and partners in Ukraine who trust and consider the Fund not only a donor, but also a valuable part of the prevailing women’s movement in Ukraine.
Natalia is a big believer in the power of movements. Due to her commitment working on Ukraine’s women’s movement, she has been rigorously building/creating/strengthening alliances among grassroots and national organizations throughout her entire career.
As a member of the gender advisory council of the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine and adviser of the Global Fund for Women, Natalia has also served on the Boards of Prospera – International Network of Women’s Funds and Ukrainian Philanthropists Forum. She is a proud Ukrainian with a Master’s degree in Personnel Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management from Interregional Extramural University of Personnel Management, and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Kyiv Polytechnic University.
Besides being deeply involved grassroots activism, she is a mother. Her first campaign was organized when her daughter was only seven years old. Even as a little girl, her daughter helped Natalia organize an advocacy campaign for equal access to the lessons of computer science for boys and girls in her school. Natalia joined the Open Society Institute in Ukraine where she spent nine years helping thousands of organizations and individuals protect human rights and achieve social change at the local, oblast, national and international levels. Natalia has continued this valuable work and applied it at the UWF as well as other organizations/projects.
The civil war that started in 2015 completely upended Ukrainians’ normal lives and brought dreadful challenges. The UWF responded fast by developing a new strategic plan to refocus work on peace, security and reconciliation as the top priority for the Fund. Through Natalia’s leadership, UFW directly partnered with the government and other women’s NGOs to draft the National Action Plan pretaining to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and lobbied for its adoption (the plan was adopted in 2016).
Presently UWF is working with local women’s NGOs in nine regions of the country on developing regional action plans. UWF also launched a training program for women’s NGOs on monitoring the effectiveness of the National and regional plans. Natalia has been running ragged through the county to meet with stakeholders and to train activists.
Sadly, Ukraine has the highest number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Europe – 1.7 million. They are primarily women (66% of IDPs), men and children who flee from the East of the country due to the war. The UWF is working with IDPs and host communities to promote reconciliation and support better IDPs integration into new communities. Their approach is multi-deminsional and complex . UWF starts from mapping and analysis of a community, then provides a space for women to come together and discuss their changed life, challenges and opportunities. The next step is a series of training for activists, then creation of the action plan, and finally – UWF provides small grants to women’s NGOs and coalitions to implement the plans. Illustrative examples of activities supported by UWF are: creation of a documentary play “Stories of women-IDPs;” presenting it in different regions of the country (the readers of the stories are opinion leaders in the region); using sports in reconciliation; and organizing media literacy trainings, etc.
By working the past ten years ago together with the colleagues at the Ukrainian Women’s Fund Board, Natalia is very proud that they created a young women and girls’ leadership program “First Step to Success”. The aim of the program is to empower young women-leaders in communities and help them realize their leadership potential. Now the program has more than 400 alumni. Two years ago some of the alums decided to become donors of the program. In a country like Ukraine where there is lack of culture of philanthropy this is a great achievement.
When Natalia and I spoke, she told me that she was especially proud that during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014-2015 she and her UFW colleagues with other women (many first-time activists) – lawyers, doctors, university professors and students, businesswomen and activists, who were protecting protesters and their rights in the courts, helping in the hospitals, providing psychological support, patrolling the city at nights, and offering many other acts of bravery, protection and kindness.
In January 2015, the banking crisis in Ukraine caused the UWF to lose all of its funding (everything – the remaining 2014 budget, the whole 2015 budget, and the reserve fund). Natalia and the UWF did not give up. Instead they started again from the very beginning. It was a difficult decision to make when you have to give up your office space, let part of the staff go, ask the others to work without salaries, and when you don’t know what the future will bring. When a war touches every fiber of your being. Natalia, who was the Chair of the Board at that time, saw two options – close the organization or start from scratch. Courageously, she opted to start from scratch.
The UFW 15th anniversary became a incalculably symbolic date – this was the year when UFW proved to themselves and to all their stakeholders that the UWF is, indeed, sturdily strong, robustly resilient, and that UFW would always have colleagues, supporters and friends from all over the world who are ready to assist UWF in a difficult situation – even war. Natalia said that, “if you have the mission and courage, if you believe in what you do – nothing can stop you.” For Natalia, these beliefs are her wings.
Ms. Natalia Karbowska has been working tirelessly for nearly 20 years to improve the lives of her fellow citizens, first through information and awareness-raising, and then during the worst outbreak of the war through direct, hands-on interaction. For these almost 20 years, she has advocated for the rights of women as full citizens. She radiates humanitarian courage, social innovation and an unflagging commitment to establish a just, democratic, self-reliant civil society. In spite of Ukraine’s current confusing, chaotic, conflict-ridden trajectory, she persists.