Q&A: For Pact’s Ukraine country director, empowering women is job No. 1March 1, 2021
Alyona Gerasimova is Pact’s Ukraine country director. She also leads two Pact projects that are working to empower Ukrainian women. Here, she discusses her path to leadership in international development, women’s equality globally and more.
Q: Tell us about your career path and current role with Pact.
A: I graduated from university at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were exciting times, at least for young people of my age. We realized there was a whole other world outside, a very different world, the democratic world, the human world, the world of opportunities. Many people in Ukraine, including my family, were struggling economically. International development programs began coming to the region, including one aimed at improving maternal child health services, funded by Canada. I was hired as a program administrator. I would say that I’ve become the professional I am today largely due to this exposure to a different culture and absolutely fantastic people – Canadian physicians and nurses whom I had the privilege to work with. My very first supervisor had incredible faith in me. He supported me in taking on more responsibilities and taught me not to be afraid of failure. Since then, I’ve taken multiple trainings from project management to executive programs offered locally and internationally, and have managed a number of international development programs funded by various donors – USAID, GIZ, SDC and most recently Global Affairs Canada.
I love what I am doing because I can see that we are making a difference. It might be a drop in the ocean but I can see how our programs give people the confidence and skills to realize their potential. I believe that Pact’s vision – a world where everyone owns their future – is possible.
What are some of the challenges that women and girls face in Ukraine?
I don’t think Ukraine is unique. Like in many other places, there are gender stereotypes and patriarchal norms. According to a 2018 survey by UNFPA, “Ukrainian society still shares firm expectations regarding patterns of marital relationship that establish men’s role as the family breadwinner, and women’s role as the caregiver for the family and children with lots of responsibilities related to household work.”
Inequality is observed in Ukraine in various fields: participation in political and economic life, access to assets, income and services, as well as standards and quality of life. Gender-based violence remains a significant challenge in Ukraine.
How are Pact and our partners working to change this?
We are currently implementing two programs to advance gender equality in Ukraine, both funded by Global Affairs Canada. The Women of Ukraine: Heard, Capable, Resilient project strengthens the capacities of women’s rights organizations to help them become more sustainable and effective in advocating for women’s rights and helping every woman and girl, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized ones, to be heard, to participate in decision making and to actively engage in the life of their family, community and country. We currently support a network of over 80 women’s right organizations across Ukraine and see wonderful examples of grassroots initiatives such as improving access to health and administrative services for women with disabilities, educating women on their labor rights, helping women start small businesses, combating stigma and discrimination toward Roma women and women living with HIV, raising awareness on gender-based violence and introducing new services to help women and girls suffering from violence. There are many more examples.
Our second project, WINGS (Women Included: Nurturing Growth and Security), is working directly with women, specifically rural women, in four regions of Ukraine, helping them to become more economically secure. We’ve partnered with three strong Ukrainian civil society organizations, and together we’ll implement a number of interventions to help women become more self-confident, gain additional skills, and either find employment or start their own microbusiness. We are just starting and will enroll the first cohort of women in April. Overall, 2,800 women will benefit from the project.
"I don’t think Ukraine is unique. Like in many other places, there are gender stereotypes and patriarchal norms."
What are the biggest challenges in your work? The biggest rewards?
My two biggest challenges are that there are not enough hours in a day, and Covid-19 related restrictions. For almost a year we’ve been working remotely and were not able to travel to the field. We’ve learned that many things you can do online, but still nothing can replace in-person interaction. The biggest reward is seeing change happening little by little; to see the interest and willingness to collaborate from our partner organizations; to see my team working so well together and believing in what we do.
What has most shaped your experience as a woman?
I am what I am first of all because of my mom. She was my role model. She was an engineer and she tested car engines, not in a lab but going on test drives. These drives could be hundreds of kilometers, going from extreme cold to very hot places, on the road days and nights. Not a typical “woman’s profession.” So I grew up in a stereotype-free environment. Mom combined wonderfully well her work and her caring for the family. Loving us and caring for us was never a hardship or additional burden for her; it was joy and fun, and Dad and I happily did things together with her and shared home care responsibilities. My parents also always supported me in whatever endeavors I chose, and I never heard from them things like, “This is not something that girls do.”
What is your hope for the future for women in Ukraine and around the world?
I truly believe that women and girls can change the world. The biggest barrier, I think, isn’t external. It’s internal, it’s what’s in our head, it’s lack of self-confidence, lack of aspirations. I think it’s important to focus on school students and young girls and boys and educate and empower them in such a way that the next generation can really become Generation Equality.