International Mother Language Day honouring Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861), ECOSOC Chamber, United Nations Building, New York City, March 27, 2014
Address by Orysia Sushko C.M., President, World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations
Thank you for the introduction. It is an honor to be here with you — the hierarchy of our Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in North America; the representatives of the United Nations and of its NGO sphere; and the leadership of numerous Ukrainian community organizations. And it is indeed a pleasure to address all and so many of you assembled here in the UN’s ECOSOC Chamber on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the birth of Ukraine’s most beloved national poet. We originally had planned, most fittingly, to venerate Taras Shevchenko within the context of the United Nations International Mother Language Day. Serfdom, imprisonment and exile notwithstanding, Shevchenko’s genius shone through: he elevated what was then deemed a peasant language to literary status.
His impact on the Ukrainian language is compared to that of Shakespeare’s on English; and his role in the forging of Ukrainian identity is compared to that of Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland.
The celebration of Shevchenko’s bicentennial takes on an especially poignant significance today in the face of renewed aggression on Ukraine’s young independence and territorial sovereignty. We of Ukrainian heritage very much need, in this time of crisis, to come together with our true neighbors and friends as we have today. And we need to share with you our devotion to the vision of Taras Shevchenko, whose life was so deeply rooted in love of homeland, respect for mother tongue, and advocacy for human dignity. We want to put a spotlight on Shevchenko as we understand and experience him – as an early champion of the core values that are at the very center of the United Nations Charter.
Significance of Shevchenko
Our World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations, which was one of the founders of the Ukrainian World Congress in 1967, was first organized in 1948. Since 1948 our women’s federation has pursued a two-pronged mission:
First, they work to cultivate the vitality of our national, linguistic, and cultural identity in the Ukrainian diaspora outside of our ethnic homeland territories. I am proud that in Canada and in 16 more countries of our diaspora, our Ukrainian women’s organizations have enhanced the community experience for several generations born outside of Ukraine. They have promoted Ukrainian traditions and are the movers behind many fine museum collections and seminars that bring Ukrainian culture out to others, featuring the art and literary works of Shevchenko. Most important, they have provided pre-school and early childhood education for families in the diaspora, with Shevchenko a cornerstone of their children’s learning about the homeland.
Second, the federation vowed to continue the efforts of the Ukrainian women’s movement which dates back to the 1880s. That historical movement strove to mobilize Ukrainian women for their self-determination and to advocate, within all available international channels, for both Ukrainian national rights and for the personal human rights of women as ethnic Ukrainians. Today our Federation still strives to advocate for the voice, empowerment, and gender equality of women in Ukraine where full democracy and good governance are still goals in progress.
Shevchenko and women’s rights
In these efforts, Shevchenko is also significant. Shevchenko’s works can be read as a sort of political commentary, but he was foremost an excellent observer of life. And from his own life, Shevchenko exquisitely understood political subjugation. What is remarkable is that, as a subjugated male, Shevchenko also empathized deeply with the specific position of the subjugated female. His poems convey unadorned accounts of the multifaceted exploitation suffered by Ukrainian women in an imperialist, colonial context—female bodies used for their labor, for their beauty, for their sexuality. Without undue pathos, Shevchenko presents the plight of girls and women, making him one of the earliest reporters of both subtle and overt violence against women. The scenarios unfortunately appear to be timeless, reflecting persistent features of the female experience that still cause immeasurable pain today.
Our women’s Federation, as an NGO in consultative status with UN ECOSOC, supports all efforts towards the eradication of local and global circumstances that continue to hurt girls and women of all ages today. As Alfredo Younis, Geneva Special Representative, speaking about the work of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, recently underscored (and I quote): “ in a society where women [are not] discriminated against, exploited or abused, denigrated, or subject to violence, [women ] will give birth and life to communities and nations – and will construct a future [that is] without violence, discrimination, abuse or denigration.”
I am grateful to the planning committee, composed largely of our Federation’s UN Representatives and headed by our Main Representative to UN/ECOSOC, Dr. Martha Kebalo; Also special thanks to Mrs. Marta Kokolskyj, Advisor to Ukraine’s UN Ambassador, for her energy and vision. Most special thanks to our UN Ambassador Yurij Sergeyev, for his role in representing Ukrainians within the UN family of nations and for his efforts to uphold the global values of the UN Charter in our home country; to hold the Ukrainian state to its UN commitments; and to promote a faithful implementation of UN initiatives for the security, freedom, and well-being of the people of Ukraine. And finally, I leave you with an excerpt from Taras Shevchenko’s poem “Shall we ever meet again”, written in 1847.
Be humble, pray to God,
And remember one another;
Love your Ukraine,
Adore her in the piercing times of evil.
In the last terrible moment
Pray to God for her.