.
F

irst Ladies have always been more than their office and it is now well-documented that they play a pivotal role in the success and prosperity of their nation. The role of the First Lady depends, of course, on the country she serves. In some nations there is a formal role and office that comes along with resources and staff. But that’s not always the case and it’s usually up to the First Lady herself to explore how she could bring resources, partnerships, and independent initiatives to benefit the people of her country and beyond.

The First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has fully embraced this role that often comes with no “rulebook” but with plenty of challenges and opportunities. We caught up with her during her recent trip to Washington, DC at the end of August in order to learn more about her initiatives in the Ukraine and around the world.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Ana C. Rold]: First Ladies around the world play an important public diplomacy role for their countries, especially in foreign visits. How do you use your office to advance public diplomacy in other countries? Can you comment on your trip to the United States?

[First Lady Zelenska]: From the moment I became First Lady of Ukraine, I realized the role I could play in supporting humanitarian causes, as social causes have been a passion of mine throughout my career. One of the things I’ve done throughout my time as First Lady, is to learn through my engagement with other First Ladies around the world, from France to Israel and Canada to Japan, and many others. This was part of the driving force behind my initiative to convene the “Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen” in August of this year to coincide with the 30th Anniversary of Ukraine’s second independence.

Attendees of the summit made a common commitment to address humanitarian challenges on a global scale and to pursue the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic, including those to education, healthcare, and gender equality are our immediate priorities. While it is only a first step, the fact that we are now working together to use soft power to address these issues in a more integrated way is making a difference already. Countries are collaborating more and making a commitment to do more to address these issues.

Former U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, Actress Robin Wright, and Lebanese author Nassim Taleb were among the special guests who highlighted the rights of women and the challenges they face. Another special guest was Afghan Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, who was evacuated in a joint effort between Ukraine, Slovakia, and Turkey—demonstrating in practice the type of cooperation envisioned by the Kyiv Summit.

While in the United States, I participated in a luncheon meeting with “Power Women,” an organization of U.S. women from diverse backgrounds focused on promoting the achievements and connection of female leaders. We discussed how the formal and structured office of the United States First Lady could be a model for other countries, and I shared my experience establishing the First Lady Institute in Kyiv, which can serve as a resource for the research of First Ladies.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you comment on your work and advocacy on issues such as health education and gender equality? How do you hope your work to influence domestic and international initiatives? Can you speak about your role in the G7 partnership for gender equality?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I believe that today we share a lot of things in common. Common values, ideas, problems. We should care about the issues that concern the whole world - health, education, gender equality.  And surely, they get closer when it comes to you. As a parent, one of the issues closest to home for me is child nutrition and its connection to both health and education. It is why I held a roundtable with Ukraine’s ministries to develop a new school nutrition program that better serves Ukraine’s students. They can improve their health so that they can improve their learning.

Equal opportunity is also a focus of my work and the agenda has many parts. One is gender equality.  I led Ukraine’s efforts to formally become a member of the Biarritz Partnership for Gender Equality, which happened in September 2020. This effort was led by French First Lady Brigitte Macron, in part, to use the soft power that First Ladies and Gentlemen have to address social challenges. She and I discussed efforts in France to promote health, health workers, and mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the ongoing work to secure equal opportunity for women. I was proud to work with TV Host and Ukraine’s Ambassador of the UN Fund for Population Masha Efrosinina to advance a National Call Center for domestic violence through Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy. I’ve also pressed Ukraine to join the Equal Pay International Coalition to address the gender pay gap, which is an ongoing problem in our country.

Gender pay equality and eliminating domestic violence are two parts of the overall Biarritz Partnership goals Ukraine has committed to pursuing. The other parts are a barrier free space for families and people with limited mobility, teaching the principles of equality of men and women, and expanding childcare and the tools for men to take care of children. Ukraine has committed itself to these principles and I am proud to have the opportunity to lead these efforts in Ukraine with many good people across the country.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you speak about the “Barrier Free Ukraine” initiative? Do you have mechanisms in place for these programs and initiatives to go on after your husband leaves office in the future?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I am proud of the work we have done in our effort to make a barrier free environment the new social norm, not just for people who face physical or mental health barriers, but for the promotion of equal rights and opportunities for all Ukrainians. Our National Strategy for Barrier Free Environment and our Council of Barrier Free Environment in Ukraine are the tools we are using to pursue our goals.

One example is breaking down barriers for girls in STEM education. Working with UNICEF, I led a partnership to promote a Ukrainian women in science art exhibition and a girls’ science essay contest called “SCIENCE is SHE.” The realization of the talents of Ukraine’s girls and women in science is important for Ukraine’s future and important in breaking down the barriers that we have. Our competition showcased 12 leading female scientists from Ukraine and had over 1,000 girls from 14 years old to 21 competing. Top prizes included a $4,000 study grant.  It also included portraits of the 12 female scientists for a travelling exhibition to towns and cities across Ukraine, focused on schools, libraries, and colleges who can show the art for free.

Our work in Ukraine to remove barriers for those with disabilities is another area where we are taking action. We have worked with cities across Ukraine to provide inclusive infrastructure, which not only removes barriers but helps to change attitudes and biases. My goal has been to be a public voice to empower people to promote the rights of the disabled.  Supporting Ukraine’s National Paralympics team is a symbolic but important way to build momentum for change in Ukraine and in other parts of the world.

As I said before, another place where we’ve seen barriers and worked to change them is in domestic violence against women. The President signed a Presidential decree on measures to prevent and combat domestic and gender violence last year. It was the number two health problem after COVID-19 which doubled after the pandemic took hold.

The important thing about these initiatives is that they have been institutionalized in Ukraine beyond the office of the First Lady and I think that makes them national priorities and ones that will continue, particularly since Ukraine has made commitments to the rest of the world.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you comment on your cultural diplomacy efforts, especially your efforts during your current visit to the United States? What have been some of the key highlights that you can share with us?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I truly believe in soft power and cultural diplomacy. It is a part of that power, which is important for Ukraine.

Our nation and society have a rich history spanning centuries and we’ve contributed to the world in many ways. The arts and history are two of the most effective ways to highlight and connect cultures using soft power. I’ve led an initiative to provide Ukrainian language audio guides at key historical and heritage sites around the world and we’ve done 31 so far, including Versailles in Paris and on my recent trip to Washington, D.C. at Mt. Vernon, the home of America’s first President George Washington. As one of the founders of America’s democracy, the link to Ukraine, which is fighting for its own democracy, is an important one for Ukrainians and Americans.

Something else I have done, close to home, is host meetings of women Ambassadors in Ukraine in partnership with British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons. It is a chance to discuss and promote collaboration on the humanitarian goals and social goals we are all working on, particularly our barrier free environment.

[Ana C. Rold]: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally and your country? What initiatives are you supporting in order to help the Ukrainian people?

[First Lady Zelenska]: The COVID-19 crisis has tested Ukraine, and me personally, but we have taken steps to improve Ukraine and it has worked. Our vaccinations have tripled since June this year and we have the lowest case levels in a year. We are also grateful for the support the United States was able to provide when President Biden, working with my husband, arranged for 2.2 million new vaccinations to be provided to Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy shows slow but steady grows, which is a mark that our nation remains strong in difficult times.

I know from personal experience how difficult this deadly virus can be. While I took all proper precautions last year as part of Ukraine’s efforts to slow the disease, I contracted COVID which led to moderate complications with pneumonia. My husband and children tested negative and I was able to work remotely and quarantine for two weeks while I recovered. Many people have suffered more than I did. Ukraine is continuing to do more to stop COVID and deal with its impacts.

[Ana C. Rold]: You are considered one of the most stylish First Ladies in the world, having graced the pages of several fashion magazines. Fashion diplomacy is a type of diplomacy that many women diplomats have used to make important statements (a great example is Secretary Madeline Albright). It is my understanding that you do not miss opportunities to support Ukrainian artists and designers. How have you been doing that during your visit in the United States?

[First Lady Zelenska]: The way you dress and the way your present yourself, not only speaks for you, but for your country and what you are trying to accomplish. The President and I always want to represent Ukraine in a positive and strong way. It is a reflection of our actions and values. It is also a way to promote Ukrainian designers and the fashion industry and tell the world more about Ukraine, what we can do, and what we offer.

In using fashion as a way to communicate, we work to meet the protocol needs on all our trips, as protocol can also be a tool of soft power during state visits and international trips. In the United States, we worked to make sure that the message we sent, whether at the White House, Mt. Vernon, or the Holodomor memorial, sought to represent Ukraine in the best way.

About
Ana C. Rold
:
Ana C. Rold is the Founder and Publisher of Diplomatic Courier. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host and Producer of Future Tense podcast. Follow her on Twitter @ACRold.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Interview with the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska

First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska at Mt. Vernon during her visit to Washington, DC in August 2021. Photo courtesy of the First Lady's office.

September 17, 2021

The First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has fully embraced her role that often comes with no “rulebook” but with plenty of challenges and opportunities. We caught up with her during her recent trip to Washington, DC to learn more about her initiatives in the Ukraine and around the world.

F

irst Ladies have always been more than their office and it is now well-documented that they play a pivotal role in the success and prosperity of their nation. The role of the First Lady depends, of course, on the country she serves. In some nations there is a formal role and office that comes along with resources and staff. But that’s not always the case and it’s usually up to the First Lady herself to explore how she could bring resources, partnerships, and independent initiatives to benefit the people of her country and beyond.

The First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has fully embraced this role that often comes with no “rulebook” but with plenty of challenges and opportunities. We caught up with her during her recent trip to Washington, DC at the end of August in order to learn more about her initiatives in the Ukraine and around the world.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Ana C. Rold]: First Ladies around the world play an important public diplomacy role for their countries, especially in foreign visits. How do you use your office to advance public diplomacy in other countries? Can you comment on your trip to the United States?

[First Lady Zelenska]: From the moment I became First Lady of Ukraine, I realized the role I could play in supporting humanitarian causes, as social causes have been a passion of mine throughout my career. One of the things I’ve done throughout my time as First Lady, is to learn through my engagement with other First Ladies around the world, from France to Israel and Canada to Japan, and many others. This was part of the driving force behind my initiative to convene the “Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen” in August of this year to coincide with the 30th Anniversary of Ukraine’s second independence.

Attendees of the summit made a common commitment to address humanitarian challenges on a global scale and to pursue the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic, including those to education, healthcare, and gender equality are our immediate priorities. While it is only a first step, the fact that we are now working together to use soft power to address these issues in a more integrated way is making a difference already. Countries are collaborating more and making a commitment to do more to address these issues.

Former U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, Actress Robin Wright, and Lebanese author Nassim Taleb were among the special guests who highlighted the rights of women and the challenges they face. Another special guest was Afghan Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, who was evacuated in a joint effort between Ukraine, Slovakia, and Turkey—demonstrating in practice the type of cooperation envisioned by the Kyiv Summit.

While in the United States, I participated in a luncheon meeting with “Power Women,” an organization of U.S. women from diverse backgrounds focused on promoting the achievements and connection of female leaders. We discussed how the formal and structured office of the United States First Lady could be a model for other countries, and I shared my experience establishing the First Lady Institute in Kyiv, which can serve as a resource for the research of First Ladies.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you comment on your work and advocacy on issues such as health education and gender equality? How do you hope your work to influence domestic and international initiatives? Can you speak about your role in the G7 partnership for gender equality?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I believe that today we share a lot of things in common. Common values, ideas, problems. We should care about the issues that concern the whole world - health, education, gender equality.  And surely, they get closer when it comes to you. As a parent, one of the issues closest to home for me is child nutrition and its connection to both health and education. It is why I held a roundtable with Ukraine’s ministries to develop a new school nutrition program that better serves Ukraine’s students. They can improve their health so that they can improve their learning.

Equal opportunity is also a focus of my work and the agenda has many parts. One is gender equality.  I led Ukraine’s efforts to formally become a member of the Biarritz Partnership for Gender Equality, which happened in September 2020. This effort was led by French First Lady Brigitte Macron, in part, to use the soft power that First Ladies and Gentlemen have to address social challenges. She and I discussed efforts in France to promote health, health workers, and mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the ongoing work to secure equal opportunity for women. I was proud to work with TV Host and Ukraine’s Ambassador of the UN Fund for Population Masha Efrosinina to advance a National Call Center for domestic violence through Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy. I’ve also pressed Ukraine to join the Equal Pay International Coalition to address the gender pay gap, which is an ongoing problem in our country.

Gender pay equality and eliminating domestic violence are two parts of the overall Biarritz Partnership goals Ukraine has committed to pursuing. The other parts are a barrier free space for families and people with limited mobility, teaching the principles of equality of men and women, and expanding childcare and the tools for men to take care of children. Ukraine has committed itself to these principles and I am proud to have the opportunity to lead these efforts in Ukraine with many good people across the country.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you speak about the “Barrier Free Ukraine” initiative? Do you have mechanisms in place for these programs and initiatives to go on after your husband leaves office in the future?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I am proud of the work we have done in our effort to make a barrier free environment the new social norm, not just for people who face physical or mental health barriers, but for the promotion of equal rights and opportunities for all Ukrainians. Our National Strategy for Barrier Free Environment and our Council of Barrier Free Environment in Ukraine are the tools we are using to pursue our goals.

One example is breaking down barriers for girls in STEM education. Working with UNICEF, I led a partnership to promote a Ukrainian women in science art exhibition and a girls’ science essay contest called “SCIENCE is SHE.” The realization of the talents of Ukraine’s girls and women in science is important for Ukraine’s future and important in breaking down the barriers that we have. Our competition showcased 12 leading female scientists from Ukraine and had over 1,000 girls from 14 years old to 21 competing. Top prizes included a $4,000 study grant.  It also included portraits of the 12 female scientists for a travelling exhibition to towns and cities across Ukraine, focused on schools, libraries, and colleges who can show the art for free.

Our work in Ukraine to remove barriers for those with disabilities is another area where we are taking action. We have worked with cities across Ukraine to provide inclusive infrastructure, which not only removes barriers but helps to change attitudes and biases. My goal has been to be a public voice to empower people to promote the rights of the disabled.  Supporting Ukraine’s National Paralympics team is a symbolic but important way to build momentum for change in Ukraine and in other parts of the world.

As I said before, another place where we’ve seen barriers and worked to change them is in domestic violence against women. The President signed a Presidential decree on measures to prevent and combat domestic and gender violence last year. It was the number two health problem after COVID-19 which doubled after the pandemic took hold.

The important thing about these initiatives is that they have been institutionalized in Ukraine beyond the office of the First Lady and I think that makes them national priorities and ones that will continue, particularly since Ukraine has made commitments to the rest of the world.

[Ana C. Rold]: Can you comment on your cultural diplomacy efforts, especially your efforts during your current visit to the United States? What have been some of the key highlights that you can share with us?

[First Lady Zelenska]: I truly believe in soft power and cultural diplomacy. It is a part of that power, which is important for Ukraine.

Our nation and society have a rich history spanning centuries and we’ve contributed to the world in many ways. The arts and history are two of the most effective ways to highlight and connect cultures using soft power. I’ve led an initiative to provide Ukrainian language audio guides at key historical and heritage sites around the world and we’ve done 31 so far, including Versailles in Paris and on my recent trip to Washington, D.C. at Mt. Vernon, the home of America’s first President George Washington. As one of the founders of America’s democracy, the link to Ukraine, which is fighting for its own democracy, is an important one for Ukrainians and Americans.

Something else I have done, close to home, is host meetings of women Ambassadors in Ukraine in partnership with British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons. It is a chance to discuss and promote collaboration on the humanitarian goals and social goals we are all working on, particularly our barrier free environment.

[Ana C. Rold]: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally and your country? What initiatives are you supporting in order to help the Ukrainian people?

[First Lady Zelenska]: The COVID-19 crisis has tested Ukraine, and me personally, but we have taken steps to improve Ukraine and it has worked. Our vaccinations have tripled since June this year and we have the lowest case levels in a year. We are also grateful for the support the United States was able to provide when President Biden, working with my husband, arranged for 2.2 million new vaccinations to be provided to Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy shows slow but steady grows, which is a mark that our nation remains strong in difficult times.

I know from personal experience how difficult this deadly virus can be. While I took all proper precautions last year as part of Ukraine’s efforts to slow the disease, I contracted COVID which led to moderate complications with pneumonia. My husband and children tested negative and I was able to work remotely and quarantine for two weeks while I recovered. Many people have suffered more than I did. Ukraine is continuing to do more to stop COVID and deal with its impacts.

[Ana C. Rold]: You are considered one of the most stylish First Ladies in the world, having graced the pages of several fashion magazines. Fashion diplomacy is a type of diplomacy that many women diplomats have used to make important statements (a great example is Secretary Madeline Albright). It is my understanding that you do not miss opportunities to support Ukrainian artists and designers. How have you been doing that during your visit in the United States?

[First Lady Zelenska]: The way you dress and the way your present yourself, not only speaks for you, but for your country and what you are trying to accomplish. The President and I always want to represent Ukraine in a positive and strong way. It is a reflection of our actions and values. It is also a way to promote Ukrainian designers and the fashion industry and tell the world more about Ukraine, what we can do, and what we offer.

In using fashion as a way to communicate, we work to meet the protocol needs on all our trips, as protocol can also be a tool of soft power during state visits and international trips. In the United States, we worked to make sure that the message we sent, whether at the White House, Mt. Vernon, or the Holodomor memorial, sought to represent Ukraine in the best way.

About
Ana C. Rold
:
Ana C. Rold is the Founder and Publisher of Diplomatic Courier. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host and Producer of Future Tense podcast. Follow her on Twitter @ACRold.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.