Speaking up for what matters

Meet Inna Sovsun from Ukraine
Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

A political marathon runner, liberal lawmaker Inna Sovsun embraces challenges to fight gender inequality, climate change, and injustice

Inna Sovsun is not a person who can tolerate injustice.

She knew that from a very young age. Ever since she sensed her family was treated differently because they spoke Ukrainian in the Soviet city of Kharkov (Kharkiv in Ukrainian).

But it was in the fifth grade that she felt the urge to speak out for the first time. The 90s in Ukraine were a period of rampant corruption and the education system was no exception. Inna was at the top of her class together with three other girls. Three of them, herself included, worked hard to get there. Their high grades were a fair assessment of their efforts and potential. The fourth one was among the best because her mother used to bribe the teachers. Inna spoke up against that… and was scolded by а teacher for it.

Inna Sovsun
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

It was a traumatic moment for this future politician, but a formative one. Inna Sovsun decided to speak up because nobody else did and it turned into her guiding principle in life and politics. During her journey, she learned not only how to stand up for herself, but also found the courage to speak up for others who couldn’t.

Outspoken and determined, the 37-year-old member of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, from the liberal political party “Golos” doesn’t shy away from complicated topics. She tackles issues like gender equality, modernizing education, and climate change.

Values matter for Inna Sovsun, as both a politician and as a university professor who teaches political ethics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Respecting individual autonomy, self-determination, and her own opponents are at the top of her list. “I can disagree with someone very emotionally, but I would never do anything to disrespect them”, she explains, seeking to comment on ideas but not on the people expressing them. 

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

In parliament, she would be the first to defend any female colleague degraded because of her gender, even if she disagrees with her politics.

Being a scholar, Inna Sovsun loves a good debate. She needs to prove her point and explain her reasoning. “We should learn to argue about principles”, she says.

Inna Sovsun believes that a good politician should be a bit of a philosopher and a bit of an enthusiast, much like her role model in politics, Barack Obama, (though he messed up on Ukraine, she notes). Someone who can act but still provide explanations of why he is acting this way.

Even in the post-truth era of politics and media, this digital-savvy politician always makes her team fact-check her every statement, speech, or TV appearance, making sure that everything she says is backed up with research.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Politics is a long game

Inna Sovsun was elected as a member of Ukraine’s parliament in 2019. A year into the job, people would ask her how she liked working there and she would reply that she is still figuring out what the job is.

As a representative of a small opposition party, with only 20 votes inside a house of 450, she knew that the chances of getting legislation passed were low.

But for Inna Sovsun, politics is a long game and in order to achieve long-lasting change, you have to be patient and persistent.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

She realized that the matter of political representation is an important part of the job description. “I came to realize that there are lots of people whose positions are not being represented, and whose positions are often viewed as marginal, but they are not. It is just that no one ever had the strength or willingness to speak on their behalf. It's just part of the job, you're representing certain interests, and then there will be certain groups whose interests you do not represent that are they going to hate you, or just not understand what you're doing. When I came to realize this, it became easier”, she points out.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

One field where political representation managed to inspire positive change in society is gender equality.

“I can see huge progress in the level of public discussion in Ukraine on gender issues”, Inna Sovsun admits. “But it took 10 to 15 years. One of the things I learned in this professional journey is that it takes quite a long time for people to get used to some new ideas and we just have to take that into account,” she adds.

Women now make up 21% of the members of the Ukrainian parliament, double the number a decade ago. That is still a small proportion because women are 51% of the country’s population.

But even if the numbers are not even, the culture is changing, as society is learning to challenge the norm of sexist politics in Ukraine and react to the unfair treatment of women. One of the reasons for that, according to Sovsun, is the growing consciousness among women that they can get into politics.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

“I hear the word sexism so often in the parliament. It's mostly: is this sexist? Can I say that? They can fake it. I don't care. Even if they don’t see the problem, but know that it’s not acceptable, it is good enough for me”, Sovsun says. “Because whenever someone makes a sexist comment, the active part of society reacts. And that wasn't the case 10 years ago”, she explains.

Recently, Sovsun caught the attention of international media for confronting the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence because they had made women soldiers march with high heels on. Her speech in parliament against a male MP’s sexist remark prompted an action by the Rada’s Ethical committee. And even though their decision to suspend the man for several sessions was overruled in parliament, it sparked a huge societal debate. And then there’s the Gender Equality Caucus in the Rada, where women stand up united against injustice and seek each other’s support for legislative initiatives.

Sovsun’s strong stance on gender issues is not only her position but part of her party’s ideology. Half of the MPs from the “Golos” party are women, as is the current party leader, Kira Rudyk. “Golos” chose their representatives based on merit and it resulted in a diverse party list.

Inna Sovsun would, of course, like for this change to happen ten times faster, but it’s still good progress for the country among the striking examples of its neighbours - patriarchal Russia and abortion-banning Poland.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Inna’s feminist journey

“There was not a single event that made me a feminist. It was a very slow process in which I realized that things are not as shiny and bright for women as I thought,” Sovsun reflects.

A traumatic experience in her teen years, when she got attacked by a man in an elevator, first opened her eyes to the extremely high levels of violence against women in Ukraine. But she was too young and too scared to realize what that meant.

Back in high school, she thought feminists were crazy. She could not see their points, because she was studying hard, achieving good results, and she thought that doing her best was enough to succeed as a grown-up.

It was not until Inna started her professional career that she saw how inequality plays out in real life. During Sovsun’s internship in the presidential administration, she would be asked to get coffee despite being well educated, while her male counterparts would be assigned to write briefs.

Studying political science in the university, she came across feminist texts, and her appetite to learn more about these issues grew. During her exchange year in Sweden, she got to experience living in a society where frank and open discussions about gender inequality are common.

And later when her son was born, she realized the complexity of issues that women face throughout their professional and personal lives. And how women can live in very different realities based on whether they have the luxury of flexible working hours and the support of their partners in raising their children or not.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

“Even by the time I realized there was a problem with gender equality in Ukraine, it took me quite a long time to be able to openly speak about it”, Sovsun explains. “I didn’t want to denigrate my achievements or show my vulnerability, but then I realized that nothing is going to change if everybody just sits quietly. If I don't speak up for other women, then who will?”

As Sovsun grew more accustomed to talking about gender issues, women in parliament would come up to her and say: thank you for doing this. So, even if she gets a lot of hateful comments on social media, the value of her speaking out outweighs them.

The ultimate challenge: climate change

Having a strong academic background, Inna Sovsun entered parliament with education policies as her main agenda. In fact, in 2014 she became the youngest deputy minister of education and science in Ukraine, and during her two years in office, she initiated reforms to de-bureaucratize higher education.

But six months into the job as an opposition lawmaker, “a crazy idea” came to her mind. She transferred to the Energy committee and decided to tackle a very new topic for Ukraine – climate change.

This doesn’t mean she has given up on education policies, as she’s still submitting proposals and amendments to current education legislation, but she’s also focused on tackling climate issues.

The major reason behind this, as she puts it, is because she likes challenges. But she also cares deeply about climate change and wants to see how this problem can be fixed.

“I knew that simply caring about climate change, without having the challenge to deal with it directly in my everyday work, wouldn't do the job. I decided to transfer to the Energy Committee and it's been a huge challenge for me. It's very complicated, very much influenced by major interest groups. It took me quite some time to figure out how to work with that and how to promote what I still believe in. But I'm really happy that I did that”, she says.

Introducing such a new topic, while there’s still an ongoing armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and people are poor and suffering, is not an easy task. But Sovsun is trying to show people that dealing with climate change can also solve some of their most pressing problems.

Like the price for utilities for instance. One of the reasons for the high cost of utilities in the country is that housing is not modernized, therefore it consumes a lot of energy. Households end up paying much more for heating, water, and electricity.

“What I've learned for the past year, is that some of the energy efficiency measures would significantly decrease utility bills, and it's also good for the environment. It decreases carbon output. It's a win-win”, Inna Sovsun sums up.

“We have to recognize that dealing with climate change is going to cost money. And we have to educate the public about that”, she adds. “We also have to admit that it's going to take time for people to get used to this and realize that this is a pressing issue. And I think we just have to be patient.”

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Read books to empower yourself

Being used to wearing many hats, Inna Sovsun has also been active in international relations, helping political refugees from Belarus start a new life in Kyiv.

She believes Ukraine has a moral duty to help others trying to walk the same path to democracy and rule of law.

“When we were protesting on the Maidan, we were very thankful for any help, any word of support we would get from abroad. And I believe it is our moral duty to do the same for others. It's about the values that we promote”, Sovsun explains.

She notes also that it’s important for Ukraine to stand up and change its image from a country asking for help to a major power in the region that promotes democracy and liberal values. “It’s the right policy for Ukraine if we want to keep Belarus away from Russia. If we want to show that we can add value to Europe, that we are not just constant troublemakers but also helping to solve some mutual problems”, she adds.

At only 37-years-old, Inna Sovsun already feels very experienced in the field of politics, because her generation took the baton from the previous one to change the course of the country. But what does she have to say to the leaders of tomorrow?

“First of all, read books. This is the way of empowering yourself. Read books about feminism. Even if you're not very much into that right now, it's going to help you become stronger”, is Inna’s message to young women. She stresses the importance of supporting other women to achieve their goals even if you disagree on some issues.

Inna Sovsun quote
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

And to all the young people considering a career in politics, Inna says: come prepared. It’s important for them to educate themselves on the topics they want to tackle and to have specific ideas about what do they want to change for the better. But also to know their boundaries – what they can compromise on and what they can’t, the lawmaker advises. 

“Many people get into politics for private interests or to get rich. But if you’re getting into politics for different reasons – to change society, to make it better, you should have very clear ideas about what exactly it is you want to do. It can’t be simply to fight climate change. You have to have a plan”, Inna urges.

Because she wants the new generation of politicians to show that ideas matter.


Follow more stories on female empowerment with #FemaleForwardInternational and in our Special Focus on the website.