Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Suds n' Plugs

It has become more and more apparent that education is the key to helping break down barriers in developing countries, such as rural Kenya. Investing in young girls education is linked to increasing gender equality. By educating girls and women many positive changes within a community can occur; higher wages, a greater likelyhood of working outside the home, lower fertility; reduced maternal and child mortality; and better health and education. The impact is not just within the women's lifetime, but has lasting effects on health, education, sanitation and productivity of future generations. There is a saying in Africa that it takes a whole village to raise a child, and since the women are primarily care givers, it takes a whole village of women to raise one child!

Around the world, women lag behind men in terms of education, access to healthcare, work, and opportunities in the political areas. According to the Council on Foreign Affairs, "there may be no better investment for health and development of poor countries around the world than investments to educate girls." Gender gaps are seen in access to education very visably in primary school. Income, geography, social and cultural norms come into play when looking at many communities. It is often thought that investing in the males in the family is the only option when it comes to financing school fees. Young girls are often left behind, even if they have great potential. Young girls become victims to losing their childhood, by having to take on more womanly roles: cooking, cleaning, child care, fetching water, ext. This cultural norm can lead to higher fertility rates, higher maternal and child mortality and higher causes of female reproductive issues/infection because young girls are beginning to have children to early.

In my Fellowship project, a large component is health and sanitation education in schools. Sanitation efforts and healthy habits need to be established within the nursery schools, where children in Kayafungo learn to read and write. This is a perfect way to start building a generation of informed healthy adolescents. Primary schools and secondary school is where the focus must be made in dealing with reproductive health, healthy relationships and then reinforcing sanitation ideas. Investments in early education creates lasting prevention efforts later in life.
My commitment to health improvement and women’s empowerment became solidified as I experienced life in Kayafungo, Kenya, a rural Southeast Kenya devastated by poverty and poor sanitation.

While in Kenya, Grace shed some light on the issues about gender equality, and lack of access to education. She was extremely passionate about how young female students were missing almost one week of school per month because of their menstruation cycle, and that female reproductive health was breezed over in school, leaving female youth questioning what was happening to their bodies with no one to ask about it. Many female youth when surveyed said, they were uncomfortable asking their teachers, who were mostly males, about their cycle, and that their mothers did not seem open to the discussion. Young girls and women of Kayafungo do not have readily available sanitation pads to use during their cycle, and are reduced to using bits of cloth or fabric. This practice is not only ineffective to stop leakage, but coupled with a lack of access to clean water, it is unhygienic and potentially very harmful. Grace and many other women in Kayafungo wish for their daughters, nieces and other girls to have a chance at a childhood the women never had. Grace and I gathered CHTs and local women to create a social enterprise, a soap business that will bring in financial means to support health and sanitation endeavors within the community at large, and have a specific focus on female health sanitation. The soap business will provide capital to start a Women’s Action Center, a hub for the soap business, hold soap making demonstration, a place where soap and other sanitation products will be sold to local community members and schools, trainings on health issues, and a community center for young girls to come and discuss health topics in an open and nurturing environment. The Women’s Action Center allows for many issues to be addressed, the large goals being improve health and sanitation, increase girl attendance in school, and positively improve the lives of young girls and women in Kayafungo.

The Kayafungo Mungano (united) women's group is the women's organization that I started to help address health and saniation issues in Kenya. We have already made a huge impact. The 30 women that make up the KMWG come from various areas within the community; have diverse skills and a passion for improving health and sanitation as a whole in Kayafungo. The women and I formed the KMWG, started a soap business where 250 bars of soap were made from local materials to be sold in the community market, improving the sanitation on homes in the community, a total of approximately 500 people. Every single bar of soap was sold during our first business day, grossing 3000 shillings, equivalent to $43 USD, and with most of the community living on under $1 USD a day, this is a huge accomplishment. Part of this money was put towards registering the KMWG with the government, the rest was put aside to later invest in the building of the Women’s Action Center, the long term goal of the KMWG. The women met on a bi-weekly schedule to create soap, discuss philanthropy opportunities in the community, and to work on skill building. While I was in the community we had six successful meetings, and one soap making session.

My fellowship project is a social enterprise based idea that will lead to great sustainable change within Kayafungo. This project has taken many different turns and has been a constant flow of thoughts, input from others, and a wonderful learning experiance. I am most proud of the fact that the women's group is already established, has sustainable qualities and we have only just begun.