CFK’s Mercy Owuor speaks at UN Headquarters in New York March 13, 2018 by Krista Park Berry
Mercy Owuor, the Head of Research, Policy and Development at CFK, was invited to serve as a panelist and speaker at the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women event session at UN Headquarters in New York, NY. This was a joint event of the World Health Organization, International Labour Organization, The Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and Women in Global Health. Below is an excerpt of her address.
“Let us not leave anyone behind; join us in ensuring that all rural women and girls are empowered.”
When I was growing up, my dream was to work with women and children, I often dreamt about having children and seeing them grow to fulfill their purpose in life. The organizations I have worked with provided me with the opportunity to work closely with women. Most recently, my work was based in a rural community that required I drive two and half hours every Friday in order to spend time with my family and two children ages four and seven. I will admit it has not been easy but I am grateful for my experiences and this hard work.
My first role was mentoring a group of young women. One day as I was having a session, I noticed one of the women was missing from the group. I asked the group where Mary was and there was a long awkward silence. Finally, one brave member shared that Mary had lost her son. This shocked me and so many questions ran through my mind. I wondered why no one told me about it or even asked for my help.
One woman stood up and shared that in their community, they do not announce when a child dies. Usually, only the close relatives will know. Although I was from the same Luo tribe as these women and had grown up nearby, I had never heard of this tradition. When I asked why this was practiced they replied, “Too many children die in this village. If we eulogized them all, it would simply be too much.”
This shocked me, and I was left thinking, “How many children have we lost who were never counted? How many more are we going to lose if we don’t act now?”
At this moment, everything changed for me. I launched a community health outreach program, which deployed a team of former traditional birth attendants to act as community health workers, identifying all pregnant women in the community and linking them to care. I am pleased to share that Mary enrolled in the program and now has two healthy children.
The community health workers are providing education and support to women and children. From the program, we managed to reduce the mortality of children under the age of five by half the county average, increased skilled delivery from a previous average of 26% to 97%, and increased uptake of contraceptives by 300%. Now, over one million people in Migori County, Kenya, are being impacted by this program.
Three-quarters of the community health workers are women with 40% of those being reformed traditional birth attendants. The program has provided employment to many women from the community, and girls from this community now see hope for a better future and a reason to go to school. They have broken long standing traditional and cultural biases that increased women’s marginalization and vulnerability to become beacons of hope to the challenge of access to quality and affordable healthcare in rural communities.
It is challenging for women leaders, perhaps especially in Africa, to balance the demands of their careers and those of their families. In Kenya, there are heavy cultural expectations of women to be the central force of childcare and social engagement for the family. This is difficult to square with the long hours and personal sacrifices it takes to lead healthcare enterprises.
However, my push came from the knowledge that a pregnant mother deserves to receive education and support to know the benefits of having skilled delivery, immunizations for their children and family planning; girls need to enroll and complete school to pursue their dreams and purpose in life; and that all children can celebrate their fifth birthday. That is what the world should look like.
More about Mercy:
A Heroine of Health 2017 Awardee from GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health, Mercy is a community Health and Development specialist with over 10 years of program management and research experience working with communities to improve their health outcomes. Her interests are in various public health and social science disciplines including maternal and child health, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and poverty. She is one of four global health leaders featured in the 2017 Heroines of Health Documentary by GE Healthcare. Prior to her work at CFK, Mercy served as the Director of Community Programs at Lwala Community Alliance where she lead efforts to improve maternal and child health outcomes working closely with a team of community health workers in rural Kenya. She also served as a Field Study Coordinator at the University of Nairobi College of Health Sciences. Mercy holds an Master of Science in Community Health and Development from Great Lakes University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Moi University.