Angela Nguku: Safeguarding health and the rights of women, girls

White Ribbon Alliance founder Angela Nguku.

Tell us more about your organisation

White Ribbon Alliance (WRA) is a people-led movement for reproductive, maternal and newborn health rights. We promote good health and gender equality broadly. We advocate the rights of women and girls. Improving health outcomes for women and girls should not be complicated — women already know the solutions — all they need is the world to listen. Recognising that solutions are best implemented at the local level, WRA Kenya provides its members with tools, training, and a globally connected network to broaden the reach of their advocacy efforts and realise lasting change in the lives of women and girls in their communities.

Why did you choose the philanthropic career path?

This is where I found my passion and fulfilment. I grew up in abject poverty, hence I fully understand the true meaning of lack — how it looks, how it smells and how it feels. I have this deep desire to give and help the needy. I find lots of fulfilment in seeing my acts of kindness transform someone else's life. I have also learnt that giving does not have to be material, even a smile, a word of encouragement, elevating the voices of those facing injustices and making visible the least visible in various spaces are acts of giving. In addition, I am a product of someone’s philanthropic acts given that I was sponsored in most of my high school and my first master’s degree; hence the need to give back to the world.

What motivated you to start the alliance?

My desire to become a reproductive, maternal and newborn health rights defender. The dream started in South Sudan, where I began my career. I had gone there soon after my internship to deliver health care to women and children after the civil war. I witnessed too many deaths and suffering of pregnant women during childbirth because of a dysfunctional health system given the long civil war. I later worked in other hard-to-reach areas in Africa, some parts of Asia and Latin America; and my advocacy work is rooted in my first-hand encounters with women and girls dying from preventable causes. The most surprising thing is that no one was talking about it, not even the media. It had been normalised across the board. I remember perusing newspapers in Kenya to see if someone was talking about it but no one was. By then, we were losing over 26 women every day in Kenya from pregnancy and childbirth complications. I could not believe it. It is from these sad statistics that I decided to dedicate my life to raising the profile and visibility of the issues that plague women and girls during pregnancy and childbirth.

What were you doing before you started the alliance?

I started working in the health and development space soon after my internship. I was a health trainer, then worked as a health programme manager in the African region. I also worked as a global programme director in the global health space.  I read about policies that were detached from reality, heard commitments that were elusive and interacted with an apathetic citizenry who did not know or understand that they had rights and entitlements.

What challenges have you encountered in your line of duty and how did you overcome them?

Convincing policy makers and funding parties that solutions must always be locally led. They cannot be led from boardrooms, rather from the grassroots. The wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches most. There is no hierarchy in development — those being supported have just as much to give as their supporters. This remains work in progress and what I have learnt is that I must keep talking about it, someone is listening somewhere.

What is your biggest fear?

Failing to fulfil my purpose. I have a purpose and this motivates me. If this does not happen, I will have failed millions of women and girls not just in Kenya but globally, too.

How do your days look like?

I am an advocate in different spaces — from the grassroots to the regional and global spaces. First, I reflect a lot on my work and use this time to write — I love writing. I then respond to emails after which I attend work meetings and speaking engagements. I also go to the field to see what’s happening. My normal working day ends at 8pm.

 Who are your mentors?

Loyce Pace, director of the Office of Global Affairs, United States Department of Health and Human Services, and Caroline Shakwei Mbindyo, CEO Amref Enteprises. The young women and girls that I mentor are also my mentors indirectly.

 Where do you see yourself in the coming years?

I want to be in the global health and development space, shaping global health policies that impact women and girl’s health and rights.

Also, farming and mentoring more young people so they can transform their lives.

What are some of the achievements that you are most proud of?

Knowing that I’m playing a part in moving the needle when it comes to the health of women,girls and newborns in Kenya. I take pride in growing a community of people that know their rights and entitlements, can demand and hold those responsible accountable but more importantly, are also playing their part in shaping their lives. This in addition to seeing the growth of WRA and the growing partnerships across the board. Donors and other sector players have appreciated the work we do. My work has also seen me join the bigger WRA movement as the global deputy CEO as well as global boards such as the Global Health Council Board of Directors, Merck for Mothers Advisory Board, Girls Health ED Board, Global Action Plan for Healthier Lives and Well-being Advisory Board and the AlignMNH Steering Committee. Getting selected as a Bill and Melinda Gates GoalKeeper (Global Change Maker) and also seeing Bill Gates tweet my work was huge!

Parting shot?

We all have a purpose in life and the most important thing is to find that purpose and live it with passion. It is the most exciting thing, the biggest motivator in life. I believe that I found my purpose to advance reproductive, maternal health, and rights of women and girls. The era of simply making pledges and counting numbers must be left behind. Women must have a seat at the design, implementation, and accountability table. They know best what they need and want for their lives.

It is high time we realised that women are born with power; it is society that takes this power away from them, putting them in vulnerable situations by denying them their rights in almost all spheres of their lives. It is our moral responsibility to save women and newborns from dying during pregnancy and childbirth. We cannot keep holding their lives at ransom; each life lost is just one too many! I want to see deliberate, practical, and realistic plans to save their lives, and I want to see them implemented fully. I want to see women’s desires, choices and realities taken into consideration in the creation of those plans. There is no better time than now.

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