Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award 2024 – Mariia Sulialina

This year’s Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award goes to Mariia Sulialina, head of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Almenda. She gives voice to the Ukrainian children in the occupied territories who are subjected to indoctrination and militarization and who are at risk of deportation to Russia. She fights for children’s rights and freedoms and, together with Almenda, carries out the invaluable work of documenting war crimes in order to bring those responsible to justice. 

“For her outstanding resilience and commitment to human rights, democracy and children’s right to shape their own future, Mariia Sulialina is awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award 2024”, writes Civil Rights Defenders Board in its motivation.

Ukrainian children subjected to propaganda and deportation   

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, 545 Ukrainian children have been killed. Another approximately 1.6 million school-age children in the occupied territories are constantly exposed to Russian propaganda. 

“There are gross violations of human rights in the occupied territories. Nobody is safe, no matter if you are a child or an adult”, says Mariia Sulialina. 

The school system is overrun with propaganda and deprives children not only of their childhood but also of their Ukrainian identity and culture. Instead, they are forced to learn how to handle weapons so that they will be able to fight for the Russian army when they get older. A number of young Crimeans who were children when Russia occupied the peninsula have been enlisted into the war, or even voluntarily gone to war against Ukraine. 

“The children in the occupied territories do not receive a proper education because propaganda is such a large part of it. It clearly paints a picture of a future for the children where the boys will become soldiers, the girls will be their support and the rest of the world are enemies that they need to defend themselves against. The children are treated as a mobilization reserve”, Mariia says.  
Ukrainian children are also being deported to Russia. An estimated 19,000 children  have been abducted. If a child has lost family members, the risk of being abducted or illegally adopted by a Russian family significantly increases. 
“They do not take the best interest of the child into account. What we have to do is to bring them back, rehabilitate them, give them psychological and physical help. We need to give them their future back, so they can become who they want to be, not who Russia wants them to be.” 

Education as the foundation of democracy  

Mariia Sulialina is the leader of the Civic Centre for Education “Almenda”, which works to document and draw attention to war crimes and other grave human rights violations committed in Ukraine, in order to one day bring those responsible to justice. They also fight for the return of deported children. However, this is difficult work, since legal processes take a long time, and Russia withholds information.  

By giving children and young people access to a Ukrainian education, Mariia Sulialina wants to reduce the influence of propaganda. She also works to reintegrate those who have already been indoctrinated. With the help of education, she wants to equip children and young people with democratic values and give them back the right to determine  their own identity, which she sees as a basic prerequisite for creating a democratic society.  

According to Mariia, the award signals the importance of the work that she and Almenda do. She hopes that this will lead to increased attention and awareness of the war crimes taking place in Ukraine. 

“We have to show the world what is going on because there is still a lack of reaction to what is happening with our children in the occupied territories. It has already been going on for 10 years already. So we need to put more pressure on those responsible and raise awareness to bring justice.”  

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The losses must not be in vain  

Mariia Sulialina has continued her fight despite severe setbacks and personal losses. Like many others, she has lost loved ones in the war.  
“I feel a lot of pain. You think you’re going to have these people in your life for a long time, but instead you have to bury them. Many have lost their sons and daughters. They’re not coming back. For their sake, we must continue to fight and win, so that their losses will not be in vain. That all of this leads to us being able to give our children a future.”  

In addition to her drive to create a future for the children growing up in today’s Ukraine, Mariia dreams of one day revisiting the Crimean Peninsula, the place where she grew up. In the past, she wanted to travel and see the world, but since she had to flee, she dreams of being able to return to a free Crimea.  
“When I was a kid in Yalta, Crimea, there was a place where old ladies and gentlemen were dancing every Saturday. I was talking to my friend recently and we said, ‘One day when we are 70 years old, we will be dancing there.’”  

Mariia Sulialina will come to Stockholm to receive the award on 21 May.   

About the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award

The Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award is an award for outstanding work in the defence of civil and political rights. It is awarded every year by Civil Rights Defenders. With the award, we recognise a prominent human rights defender who, despite the risk to their own safety, continues the struggle for civil and political rights. The award highlights the situation of human rights defenders at risk. It enhances their human rights work by providing international recognition and support to the award recipient.  

Read our FAQ here.


If you would like to know more or book an interview with Mariia Sulialina, please contact our press service at or call +46 (0)76 576 27 62.   

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