Persevering in being bold

Wednesday, 8 Mar 2017
"Boldness for me is about perseverance and having the tenacity and determination to persist with something that’s right, something that’s just."

My name is Nicole Sijenyi-Fulton. I’m the Team Leader for a programme in Kenya, called the Maternal and Newborn Improvement project, or MANI for short.

MANI works with the health sector in Bungoma County in western Kenya to improve maternal and newborn survival. We also run a competitive grant scheme for organisations to apply for funding for innovative interventions for maternal and newborn health in six counties across Kenya.

What does ‘be bold for change’ mean to you?

Boldness for me is about perseverance and having the tenacity and determination to persist with something that’s right, something that’s just.

It’s not always visible, and it takes time, but it’s meaningful, and leads to real change for real families, and real women.

What is your boldest achievement?

I think the boldest thing I’ve done is fighting for the national scale-up of the Mentor Mother Model in Kenya, which took seven years of my life.

That’s why boldness means perseverance to me! That’s how long it took to be meaningful and sustainable.

So the Mentor Mother Model addresses a highly stigmatised issue, where HIV+ women receive poor quality health care in pregnancy and don’t know how to access the support they need to have a negative baby.

It takes a simple idea, where you empower mothers to help each other. It means that taking some of the function of a nurse and giving it to a woman with HIV and positioning her as a mentor. Not a volunteer, who is struggling to feed her family, but you professionalise her. You value her unique knowledge and experience and you integrate her into the health team.

You pay her a living wage, because often she’s a single mum, so that she can be at work five days a week, eight hours a day. And you give her the skills she needs to do that work.

And it transforms health service delivery, saving the lives of many women and children in Kenya.

At the beginning it was seen as a radical idea, but once nurses started to have Mentor Mothers embedded within their hospitals, working alongside them as peers and colleagues, then it became a powerful movement. The nurses became the greatest champions of that movement.

My boldness was to lead that vision, to carry it and to translate it into practice day after day after day, and not give up.

What challenges to being ‘bold for change’ do you face in your country?

Women in the professional sphere here are very empowered in the workplace and Kenyan culture is generally respectful of authority. There are many successful female leaders who occupy senior positions and that space exists for women to access.

I’m not saying it’s as easy for them to access as for men, but they can.

But what’s interesting is, when they go home, they’re exactly who they have been for generations. That’s the side, I think, that changes much slower, and that definitely affects a woman’s ability in the workplace.

You have a responsibility to be the boss of the household, the leader of your home. So while I’m able to be successful in my career, and I don’t usually feel like my gender holds me back, I have two jobs, and my husband kind of only has one!

Also, in maternal and newborn health the knowledge and understanding that rural women have about how their bodies work – the type of knowledge that I took for granted growing up –is not common knowledge.

It’s knowledge that is very difficult to access, and that’s such a barrier for Kenyan women.

To really meaningfully empower women in Kenya we have to get sexual health education into the school system. And that’s a 20-year undertaking that will require the boldness of perseverance.

What bold actions would you like other people to take, to see a more inclusive, gender equal world?

Feminism isn’t just about giving equal rights for women, it’s also about expanding options for men.

So just as a woman can be an airline pilot, a man can also be a nurse, an elementary school teacher, a stay-at-home dad. That’s what gender equality really is.

But often the former leads and the latter struggles to follow and I haven’t really seen that transition in transforming masculinities in Kenya. I think that’s the next frontier, because it helps men and women, as men take on broader responsibilities.

Then things shift, right? That’s what feminism means to me.

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