Orginally posted by Maafanta.com
An interview with Maureen Odour, a Women Deliver Young Leader and Founder of Plan at Hand Girl Empowerment Project
Oumie: Greetings Lady Maureen! It’s indeed an honor and pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with a fantastic, extremely brilliant and committed young woman as you. I must admit that I am delighted having you as our guest, especially for this month that we are celebrating International Youth day. It’s an honor to showcase your work in the Outreach. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Maureen: Oumie, I am really honored to be part of the Outreach. I am Maureen Oduor, a development specialist by profession and women and girls reproductive health rights activist. I am Kenyan but work in Tanzania with African Peace Ambassadors Tanzania. I am the regional coordinator of the organization. Also, I am one of Women Deliver’s 100 young leaders working on women and girl’s empowerment.
Oumie: Thank you. Let’s begin with a little bit of history here. We all have our different paths that have motivated us or influenced our involvement in the global women’s movement. Please tell us a little about how your journey began.
Maureen: My Journey began in 2001 when I was only 16 years of age. At this time, I was in high school and witnessed up to 20 girls been expelled from school due to teenage pregnancy. I remember helping in carrying a girl, who was bleeding in our hands for a distance of 8 kilometers to catch a bus to the hospital. She died upon arrival. Her death was due to unsafe abortion. This made me to be careful and started advocating for the sexual and reproductive rights of girls. This story remains my inspiration to advocate for the rights of voiceless girls and women.
Oumie: That incident must have been traumatic but it led you into a change maker. An interesting feature about your work is how you commute between Kenya and Tanzania. What’s the reason behind this?
Maureen: My interest to move to Tanzania was my quest to learn and compare the challenges women and girls face within East Africa. I decided to get out of my country and work in rural Tanzania. I realized girls here needed my voice more and I’m happy that I made some changes here. At least Muheza District is not the same again as I found it.
Oumie: Presently, what are the most effective tools that you are using to increase both admission and retention of girls in school?
Maureen: I have decided to break the silence in Tanzania and be more realistic, I promote access of sexual and reproductive health services, especially family planning as a viable means to keep girls in school. I also go further to engage people on another highly stigmatized area, which is menstrual management. I promote access to reusable sanitary towels by girls as a viable way to stay longer in school and bridge gender gaps in education. I have also pioneered advocacy to change policies which block girls from school, such as the policy that expels pregnant adolescents from schools in Tanzania and never to return again. This policy is back in the parliament for review through the support of the ministry of education. I believe there is no effective anti-poverty weapon an Africa woman can have if not education and we must not relent in our efforts to make this a reality for all girls.
Oumie: Those are great achievements. You have just mentioned that a major part of your advocacy focuses on reproductive health. You were able to do a fantastic job at the Women Deliver 2013 in Malaysia by showing the world how the sexual needs of adolescent girls influence their education. How’s the project going?
Maureen: Green Sanipad Initiative (GSI) that was launched in Malaysia during WD 3rd Conference has grown and reached wide number of needy girls with menstrual hygiene information and reusable sanitary towels. This project has proven to be lifesaving, girls who participate have improved academic performance and they are more confident about menstruation. The project has turned the watch around by engaging community members and they come to acknowledge the fact that menstruation is a safe biological process and not a curse as was previously perceived.
Oumie: Often, the sexual and reproductive health needs of young women are ignored in the policymaking process of many developing countries. A global youth movement is committed in changing this situation. How do you link sexual and reproductive rights as important indicators for human development?
Maureen: As a development specialist, I believe that a tight link exists between sexual and reproductive health rights and human development. When young people of a society enjoy reproductive rights without any violation, the results are: less unwanted pregnancies, people will decide when and how many children to have, reduced maternal mortality, more educated and empowered youths and improved economies. The reality is, for the developing nations to move up the ladder of development, it’s mandatory they increase investment in sexual and reproductive health rights of all people.
Oumie: Now, I will want you to give our readers an in-depth examination of your work in Tanzania. How you are able to mobilize funds, volunteers, among others to work on issues affecting adolescent girls.
Maureen: My work is my passion and my dream. I do what I enjoy most. I have been volunteering since I was 16 in different organizations in Kenya and Tanzania. I thrive to hold to any opportunity that I can use to deliver for women and girls. This is how I even represent minority groups at international events and conferences. I have also been keen to identify international organizations which have girls and Women’s lives at heart such as Women Deliver and I partner with them. To be very precise, I can’t go without commending the efforts of Women Deliver to enhance my capacity through trainings, networking and recommendations since 2007.
Oumie: Such support is indeed encouraging. Maureen, other than adolescent girls, have you got any plans working with other sexually active young women, especially with regards to contraception use?
Maureen: Currently with support of funding and technical assistance, I have been implementing Plan at Hand Girl Empowerment project which reaches teenage mothers, teenage wives and generally girls that want to learn or access reproductive goods and services. The project uses mobile phone SMS to reach hard-to-reach girls in a more private and confidential manner hence reducing up to four key barriers to girls access to family planning services. It’s an amazing experience to work with the girls on SMS, in an area like Muheza District where family planning remains a taboo surrounded by much stigma.
Oumie: Those are amazing engagements. In the Kenyan (if possible, East African) perspective, are we making gains in our advocacy, by taking a rights based approach to determine that women and girls need the full autonomy of their bodies and decisions about reproductive actions?
Maureen: I think to some extent we are making some progress and gains. We see some policies being reviewed, young people are becoming more vocal to speak up about their rights, we are targeting budgets to be increased and allocated for women. Due to such advocacies, more women are having political positions and we use them to help create women friendly laws in East Africa. Finally more women are getting education and beginning to be more independent.
Although such changes are evident, we have a lot of work yet to be done. This is because, girls still dropout of school in larger numbers due to teenage pregnancies, child marriages and cultural gender preferences still affect women aggressively. We still need more investment to make our voices heard, some reproductive right policies are still brutal and gender unfriendly. Culture and religious practices such as FGM still harm thousands of our girls. So we still have a long way to go.
Oumie: I will quickly draw you back to your current work with the Women Deliver. Some months ago, you won the competitive Women Deliver C- Exchange youth Initiative for young people with brilliant ideas and solutions that empower women and girls. Again, congrats! Please, continue to elaborate on this project, talk to us about the successes registered so far, challenges that you are encountering and others.
Maureen: PLAN AT HAND GIRL EMPOWERMENT PROJECT earned a title of top ten proven solutions with Women Deliver C Exchange youth initiatives. This is an amazing project. I realized that having an open and sincere avenue that engages young girls in a safe and confidential manner save their lives. Youth friendly clinics are opened and midlevel providers change youth perceptions to support reproductive rights. It has been a success to date but with a number of challenges such as policies of family planning that require parent’s consent to access the services, religion and culture still remain challenges as far as family planning is concerned. Finally much more investment in the form of funding remains a requirement for sustainability
Oumie: I am inspired by your commitment and selflessness in the women’s empowerment struggle. And your focus on young girls isn’t only promising but its “smart investment”. What plans, if there are any, which you will want to share with us?
Maureen: I have a plan to engage stakeholders and expand this initiative to the national level. This might sound ambiguous at the moment but it’s my passion. I have tested it and found out that every adolescent girl in Tanzania regardless of region should surely enjoy these life changing services.
Oumie: Moving to the final aspect of our chat, let’s talk about politics. What possibilities or opportunities are open for increased female presence in high level politics in East Asia?
Maureen: More women are becoming professionals, more women have the quest to stand up for fairer investment in women’s needs, constitutions are changing and adding affirmative actions to empower women. A good example is Kenya. All these are possibilities and opportunities that can make women reach top positions. Although it will take us a lot of energy and time to work specifically on male dominant cultures and show the world that what a man can do, a woman can do it even better.
Oumie: Do you think that a Rwandan parliament style could be emulated by Kenya, Tanzania, among others? What are the prospects of youth representation in the political setting?
Maureen: Rwanda is an option that I think Tanzania and Kenya would consider. Youth representation is very poor in both countries, due to poor economic class and status, rich people tend to facilitate and promote youths into parliament but they are never given chance to work independently. Hence the few youths in parliament tend to meet lots of challenges. Despite this, we still demand for more young people to be part of the government so that they can address youth problems.
Oumie: On a final note, considering Africa with the largest population of young people, please share your final thoughts about the current debate on sexual and reproductive rights, especially from a governance perspective.
Maureen: The Reality is that Africa has all it takes to ensure the attainment of development. But it’s so sad that we are losing young people to preventable sexual and reproductive health risks such as HIV/AIDS and other STIs, abortion, and cervical cancer, etc. Our governments would rather invest in less productive avenues than sexual and reproductive rights of young people. This explains why some economies have remained redundant because youths, who should drive the economy are not healthy; they lack support and encouragement to make them feel part of the community. Many governments see youths as challenges but I am hereby saying that, that concept is a misconception. Unless youths are engaged and accorded reproductive health rights then Africa as well as the world will be losing seriously in social and economic terms.
Oumie: I must commend you for your brilliance and commitment. Thank you for your time. Good luck.
Maureen: It’s my pleasure.