A Force for Change in Kenya

Advocating for women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights is not an easy job. Many of us in the field know this going in and manage to stay the course. While others, no matter how passionate they are, lose steam. I remember co-hosting a youth sex education radio show in Montreal, Canada, almost 10 years ago and had to respond to callers who were challenging our right to be on the air. The opposition can be exhausting, even when the work is rewarding.

But recently I met Monica Oguttu (pictured, left), a strong advocate and leader who is making significant advances for girls and is an example of what determination can achieve. Monica is the co-founder and Executive Director of Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET), an IWHC partner organization located on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. KMET is located in Kisumu County, a region struggling with high rates of adolescent pregnancy and maternal death due to unsafe abortion. Facing poverty, many girls there trade sex for food, school fees, and even menstrual pads. As you can imagine, Monica does not have an easy job.

And many local community leaders are not ready to discuss sexuality. They consider it to be a private matter, and see it as “bad manners” for girls to talk about such a taboo topic. As a result, many girls and young women do not understand their bodies or their rights.

Monica is working to change this by challenging prevailing social norms. Following the landmark International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 — where the international community finally put women’s rights at the center of development — she and her co-founders, Dr. Khama Rogo and Dr. Solomon Orero, established KMET. Monica could not ignore the need for safe abortion and sexuality education in her community. Despite these services being, in her words, “elephants in the house”—necessities that no one recognizes—Monica knew they were essential. Young women and girls cannot reach their full potential without access to critical information and care, that allows them to make informed choices about their lives and bodies. Monica has been a fierce champion of these rights ever since, “the day I stop talking about abortion, is the day I’ll be dead.”

KMET is a force to be reckoned with. The organization supports women and girls in a holistic manner, providing medical, educational, and vocational services.  Among other services, they operate a public, youth-friendly clinic and fully-equipped pharmacy. Kenya’s new National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy, launched in September 2015, provides a framework for which KMET can operate and advocate for change.

Monica’s passion and ability to foster dialogue has kept her going. “Advocacy is the oxygen I breathe. When I go to meet my colleagues at the county level, I share stories from the field.” She speaks to girls and women who come to KMET for services and reports their needs directly to policymakers, making sure their voices are heard.

While a fierce advocate, Monica is also known for her ability to promote collaboration between government officials who need to work together to get the job done. Recently she initiated an important dialogue between the county level Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education. Each ministry was blaming the other for the rise in early pregnancies. She mediated a discussion between them, and the result was huge: both ministries agreed to move forward in providing comprehensive sexuality education and committed to allocate resources, train teachers, and monitor the quality of this education.

Monica succeeds because she creates trust and respect between the government ministries and herself, and she’s not afraid to hold them to their promises. It’s organizations like KMET that fight to turn these commitments into reality.

With a leader like Monica, who brings everyone into the fold to solve problems, I know KMET is in good hands. The future is bright for girls and young women in Kisumu. As the holiday winds down, and 2016 starts up, I draw inspiration from Monica’s enthusiasm. She inspires me to keep up my own work to advance women’s and girls’ health and rights.

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