Former Miss Ukraine Veronika Didusenko Changes History and Launches Global Campaign #RightToBeAMother

Former Miss Ukraine Veronika Didusenko Changes History and Launches Global Campaign #RightToBeAMother

Veronika Didusenko is a fashion model and women’s rights activist. In 2018, Veronika was crowned Miss Ukraine (Miss World) but was consecutively disqualified for the reason of being a single mother. She stood up to the unfair rules of the beauty pageant which discriminate against women based on the protected characteristics of family status, maternity, and pregnancy. 

Veronika brought the issue to the attention of Gloria Allred, US women’s rights attorney and the two agreed to meet to discuss her campaign for change. Then, in December 2021 a 27-year-old woman Andrea Quiroga from Los Angeles, California came forward. Andrea had always wanted to participate in beauty pageants but, as a mother, was not able to compete in the two biggest pageants – Miss Universe or Miss World.

On March 9 2022 Gloria Allred, representing Andrea Quiroga, announced a challenge to the rules of the Miss Universe and Miss World beauty pageants, citing Veronika as a “worldwide leader on this discrimination issue in beauty pageants”.

In California, the Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against women because they were or are pregnant.

Ms. Allred’s firm – Allred, Maroko & Goldberg (AG&M) – contacted the Californian Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DEFH) and filed the intake form for Andrea to initiate the complaint process. When the DEFH accepts a case it independently investigates the facts and legal issues. DEFH attempts to resolve the dispute in appropriate cases. It may also decide to take legal action [by filing a civil action in court].

A Historic Victory!

On 6 August 2022, 10 days after AG&M filed the submission and DEFH opened an investigation, the Miss Universe pageant announced that from 2023 it would allow women with children, pregnant women, married women, and women who had previously been married to enter the competition.

Ms. Allred said: “This sexist rule which has been in effect since the 1950s is now ‘herstory’” and praised Veronika for being a “courageous advocate on these issues for many years.”

“I am infinitely grateful to Gloria Allred for seeing in my story and Andrea’s the blatant discrimination against women around the world and for supporting us as she has done so many times before when she has witnessed shocking injustices.”- Veronika Didusenko

My name is Veronika Didusenko. I am from the besieged city of Kyiv, from war torn Ukraine.” Tell us about your life in Ukraine and what you want the world to know about Ukrainians. 

A few days before the Russians invaded Ukraine I met a pregnant friend in a coffee shop in Kyiv to discuss what we would do if there really was an attack on our country. American President Joe Biden had warned there would be a full-scale attack and I believed him, but in the cafe, that day, sipping cappuccinos while our two sons, who are both seven, chatted and played, it was hard to believe that life as we knew it was about to change. My son Alex and I were woken on February 24 by the sound of sirens and explosions. Kyiv, a city of more than three million people who were sleeping, without any hope of taking shelter, was hit by an enemy bomb. In-between raids, we, along with tens of thousands of other families, tried to get out of the city. Thousands of cars formed a traffic jam on the highway on the way out of Kyiv for many hours. Directly above our heads, dozens of Russian helicopters were bombing the Gostomel airfield to try and take control of it. It took us several days to reach the southwestern border of Ukraine. During that time there was no escape from the sound of sirens, and rockets and bombs exploding around us. We had to travel through four countries: Moldova, Romania, Luxembourg, and Switzerland to reach the safety of a friend’s home. I had previously planned a trip to Los Angeles, to meet with Gloria Allred on International Women’s Day (8 March) to discuss women’s rights around the world. Little did I know that meeting would take place in a completely different world to the one I had known before the Russian invasion.

When I arrived in LA in March, Ms. Allred and I decided what was most important was to discuss what is happening to mothers and their children in Ukraine, forced to flee their homes, their families, and their livelihoods. We held a Press Conference and the US media shared my story – and the plight of millions of Ukrainian children and their mothers, trembling in subway stations and bomb shelters – with the world.

Today, Russian aircraft, missiles, and rocket launchers continue to strike Ukrainian cities. Putin has deliberately bombed civilian targets – maternity hospitals, orphanages, kindergartens, and schools. Even turning his weapons on innocent people trying to escape via humanitarian corridors. Where Russian soldiers have passed, they have left behind total devastation. But Putin has underestimated the steel will and courage of Ukrainians, strengthened because of Russia’s actions against our country since 2014. The myth about the invincibility of Russian weapons and the effectiveness of their military strategy has since been debunked. It’s not only professional soldiers who are fighting for Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of civilians – men and women – have signed up for the territorial defense. And where there is no organized territorial defense, the inhabitants of Ukraine’s villages and cities stand, unarmed, in the face of our invaders

My people are not giving up. Ukrainians absolutely have the courage to defend their land and homes, but in order to stop the endless attack, they need more weapons and more ammunition. They are fighting for our land and for our freedom. My heart remains with the millions of Ukrainian mothers and children who stayed behind. As a former Miss Ukraine and a campaigner for women right’s and children’s education in my home country, the least I can do is to use my voice to speak for those who are not seen and cannot be heard, to ask the world to help us and to help save our children from Russian terrorism. My son, Alex, tells people now: ‘My mum took me away from Ukraine so I didn’t get shot.’ While every day I am relieved that he is safe, it is heart-breaking that my own mother – and her mother – are left behind in Kyiv. My 86-year-old grandmother, who has Parkinson’s disease, isn’t well enough to travel. My 47-year-old mother, Tatiana, is caring for her and volunteering at a local hospital. My 56-year-old father, Artem, is now an armed member of the Territorial Defense Force. I speak to them every day and pray for them and, for now, they are safe, but I can’t take anything for granted. 

In the years ahead, we will have to comfort and support a generation of children traumatized by the horrors they have witnessed. Maternal love will be more important than ever as we try to heal.

Share your background as a model and why being Miss Ukraine was important to you. 

Before I entered the Miss World Ukraine contest, I had been a successful model for many years. My son, Alex, has accompanied me on photo shoots around the world, and visited many countries – it’s been an amazing experience for him. I was encouraged to enter Miss Ukraine by the pageant organizers, who had followed my modeling career. I was intrigued by the organizers’ promise to support the best charity project presented by the entrants. At the time I was developing an idea to set up a charity “Young Einsteins” to support Ukrainian children with a natural gift for mathematics [a subject I am passionate about and obtained my degree in at Kyiv National University). So, I decided to enter the Miss World Ukraine contest with this charitable goal in mind. 

Take us through your thought process when you were discriminated against as a mother and why you were compelled to seek justice for yourself and others.

I was completely shocked when, on September 20, 2018, I was crowned Miss Ukraine. I had never contemplated winning the contest, I had only hoped it would raise awareness of my charitable project. As the winner, I should have gone on to represent Ukraine in the Miss World 2018 Final held in Sanya, China, in December. But a few days later, I was shocked again – but this time it felt a hundred times greater – when I was told I had been disqualified from the contest. The Miss Ukraine Organizing Committee posted their official statement, which said that the reason for my disqualification was that I am a mother and a divorcee. One of the judges of the Miss Ukraine contest, Bogdan Yusypchuk, pointed to me live on air, during a media interview following the committee’s decision to disqualify me and said: “She gave birth to a child at the age of 19 and she is divorced. I think it’s wrong to make someone like her a standard from which to take an example.”

Being a mother is my greatest achievement, yet here was someone suggesting it was something to be ashamed of. The fact that I am a mother has never been an issue during my career as a model; and why should it be? My maternal status is not relevant to my ability to fulfill my professional responsibilities. My first instinct then was to run away from the shame that had been cast upon me. If I had been alone, I probably would have done just that. But these accusations not only shamed me, but they also shamed my beautiful son too. And it was my son, my greatest achievement and the source of my greatest joy, who gave me the courage not to run away and hide back then. 

Attorney Gloria Allred took your case. Did you think you would win? 

Ms. Allred’s reputation precedes her. She has been a fearless advocate for women’s rights for over four decades, fighting tirelessly and successfully for those – like me – whose rights have been violated. She stands up for what is right and seeks positive change. When I first met with Ms. Allred we discussed how we could take action on this issue affecting the condition, status, and rights of women around the world. Ms. Allred was glad I had brought this matter to her attention and we pledged to work together to end this barrier to women’s equal rights.

Then in December 2021, a 27-year-old woman [Andrea Quiroga from Los Angeles, California] came forward. She had read about my story and contacted me via Instagram to share her experiences. Andrea had always wanted to participate in beauty pageants but, as a mother, was not able to compete in the two biggest pageants – Miss Universe or Miss World – in her hometown of Los Angeles, California. Andrea and I met with Ms. Allred soon after and (on March 9, 2022) we announced a challenge to the rules of the Miss Universe and Miss World beauty pageants. Ms. Allred and I firmly believed the rules of both pageants clearly discriminate against women who have been pregnant and have given birth.

I had doubt in my mind that with Ms. Allred by my side, we are in the strongest position to end these outdated rules, once and for all.

On August 5th, 2022, the Miss Universe pageant issued an overwhelming decision that women who are mothers, pregnant women, married women, and divorced women can compete. Tell us about this victory. 

In California, the Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against women because they were or are pregnant. Ms. Allred’s firm – Allred, Maroko & Goldberg (AG&M) – contacted the Californian Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DEFH) and filed the intake form for Ms. Quiroga to initiate the complaint process. When the DEFH accepts a case it independently investigates the facts and legal issues. It attempts to resolve the dispute in appropriate cases and may also decide to take legal action [by filing a civil action in court].

10 days after AG&M filed the submission, and DEFH opened an investigation, the Miss Universe pageant announced that it would allow women with children, pregnant women, married women, and women who had previously been married to enter the competition.

I am infinitely grateful to Gloria Allred for seeing in my story and Andrea’s the blatant discrimination against women around the world and for supporting us as she has done so many times before when she has witnessed shocking injustices.

“This latest action in the US – and my own against the organizers of Miss Ukraine – are part of my #RightToBeAMother global movement for change, established to expose the discriminatory entry criteria of the world’s four largest beauty pageants (Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth, and Miss International).”- Vernika Didusenko 

Tell us about your ongoing global campaign #RightToBeAMother. 

When I was stripped of my Miss Ukraine crown in 2018, it marked the start of my four-year battle. When I set off on this journey, it was not just for me and my son. It was for tens of thousands of women all over the world affected by this blatant discrimination. To recognize their pain, their suffering, and their humiliation. Women who, due to the outdated rules that determine a woman’s worth by her virtue [introduced 71 years ago by Miss World] have been deprived of their pride, their status as mothers, and of the opportunity to make a career in the beauty pageant industry. 

Over the past four years, I have been very fortunate to assemble a professional team that supports my campaign. But it has not been an easy journey. The single-person pickets that I held in front of the Miss World office in London did not lead to anything. I have repeatedly addressed publicly and privately the leaders of the Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth, and Miss International pageants. They did not respond to me. I have given hundreds of interviews to TV channels, radio stations, and online and print publications around the world. I have spoken at universities and at public events. I collected tens of thousands of signatures from women – and men – from more than 130 countries around the world under my petition in defense of the rights of young mothers. I also created an NGO named #RightToBeAMother to represent all the women who have faced the same struggles in the beauty pageant industry as I have. And of course, I have launched legal challenges in three countries – the UK, the US, and Ukraine. It has been a non-stop campaign and I thank my team and everyone who has walked this road with me. 

What do you want to see happen next?

Personally, of course, I wanted to Miss World to be the first to end the discrimination against mothers. The same contest that stripped me of my crown. But for the rights of women all over the world, it does not matter who is first. I applaud the Miss Universe pageant for leading the way and setting a precedent for other beauty pageants to follow. After soberly weighing up the inevitable chances of facing a legal battle, the Miss Universe pageant took the historic decision to completely remove these discriminatory rules from its list of entry requirements. It may seem like a forced concession, but in fact, it is a reasonable commercial move. Indeed, greater inclusiveness means greater commercial success. For many years you, the ‘Big Four’ international beauty pageants (Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Earth, and Miss International) have turned a deaf ear to the demands of the hundreds of thousands of women I represent – young mothers and girls who have lost their children, victims of rape who decided to continue their pregnancies and bear their children, women who are married, victims of forced marriage, and young widows. 

Today, three of these contests still remain indifferent to the fate of these women. Today, I appeal to the business people behind these organizations. Follow the example of the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Change history or become history. It’s your move. 

For more information about the RightToBeAMother campaign visit: https://righttobeamother.info/

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Jules Lavallee is an International Journalist from Los Angeles, CA. For the past eight years, she has covered celebrities, global leaders, royalty, entrepreneurs for over 20+ magazines and countless cover stories. Staying true to roots in Boston, MA, Jules is a true humanitarian. She has supported many nonprofits in fundraising, strategic partnerships, and media. She has served on the Board of Big Brothers & Big Sisters and is currently on the Board of Fund Duel, gamified fundraising platform. She is an influential person in the areas of gender equality, diversity, and empowerment. She is a graduate of Harvard University.
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