On a rare day, you might be lucky to catch Gladys Savolainen at her desk in Helsinki but usually you’ll have to count on a strong Skype connection to reach her somewhere in Africa or Southeast Asia. As one of NIRAS’s key gender and social inclusion experts, she’s constantly on the go, and her footprint can be seen widely across the organisation. Gladys wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m a social scientist and have chosen not to lock myself to a specific sector, so I have been able to support many projects. Though this requires quite a bit of work," she says, adding, "but I love that I can help people ‘step up and step out.’”
As a seasoned practitioner skilled in using participatory approaches in working with ethnically and socially diverse communities, Gladys makes sure that projects related to land, agribusiness development, and SME development “walk the talk when it comes to gender equality and social inclusion.” She explains, “It’s not enough to have these women, youth, men, and disadvantaged people involved in a project just to be a statistic or to ‘hang in’ there. We are aiming to make a real difference in people’s lives.”
Small steps to achieve the bigger goal
Sometimes, making a difference requires thinking out of the box. “In the REILA project [Responsible and Innovative Land Administration of Ethiopia], we used unconventional methods to raise awareness on land registration and women’s land rights. We organised a lot of face-to-face on-site meetings, facilitating focused group discussions because this was the best way to reach women and other marginalised groups.” This approach yielded good results. “We addressed land rights of women in polygamous marriages through a regulation passed by the regional government in Benishangul-Gumuz. Doing this, we have increased the number of registrations by female landholders and joint male and female landholders.”
Gladys still likes to keep things in perspective, seeing this achievement as an important step in the right direction instead of the achievement of an end goal. “The second-level land registration certificate is a piece of paper. What people do with it is another matter. This is a point of interest to track over time. I’m looking forward to seeing whether certified landholders formalise land transactions (which means they trust the system), whether girls/daughters will genuinely have equal rights to land in time, or whether land rights violations will cease.”
A long history of social service
The deep interest Gladys has in making an impact in the lives of others comes from her formative years and education. Born in on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, she went to Catholic school from kindergarten to college. “I went to an all-women’s college because I was not quite sure how I would fare in the big world of co-ed universities. That decision shaped my thinking because this was in a time when the nuns placed a lot of emphasis on social orientation. This was the Marcos’ era. The nuns defied this regime and instead of having us join pro-Marcos’ marches, we were sent to do social service in the free ward of government hospitals, prison cells, or in the public elementary schools. I chose the public hospital and elementary schools.”
From there, with a grant from USAID, she went on to earn a Masters from Cornell University where she focused on rural agriculture and development, followed by a PhD in Sociology from Virginia Tech, majoring in international development. After spending many years working with academic as well as national and international research institutions in the US and the Philippines, Gladys eventually made her way to NIRAS in a role she’s passionate about.
Today, her main focus is on social assessments, gender mainstreaming, and capacity building and training. In her time with NIRAS, she has worked in diverse sectors and sub-sectors, such as agriculture, livestock, forestry, natural resource management, irrigation, land, energy/ rural electrification and infrastructure development in programmes implemented at national as well as local government levels, developing strategies to apply the human rights-based approach and gender equality and social inclusion.
There’s never a dull day and each project brings new challenges and opportunities. “NIRAS has given me the space and resources to hone my professional skills. It is also growing fast, so it’s important that one stays engaged and relevant to contribute and that you enjoy being part of the business.”
And clearly Gladys does all that and more. You can ask her yourself, if you can track her down. Last we heard, she was briefly enjoying the Finnish summer with her dog Emily but soon boarding a plane for a missions to Uganda, Malawi, and Nepal on behalf of the Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) Programme funded by DFID.