Legal brain with a heart for children's health

Rosemary Mugwe is the Africa Director of Kids Operating Room (KidsOR), an international NGO that installs pediatric operation rooms where there are none. Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Rosemary Mugwe is the Africa Director of Kids Operating Room (KidsOR), an international not-for-profit that aims to provide access to safe surgery for children by installing and equipping pediatric operating rooms in low-and middle-income countries

Not many people apply to law school intending to work in medicine.

For the longest time, she pictured herself in the flowy black gown and white bib that hangs from a stiff white collar capped barrister's wig, to denote a serious lawyer.

Instead, Rosemary Mugwe finds herself periodically in surgical gowns and caps. No. She is not a surgeon. What she is, is the Africa Director of Kids Operating Room (KidsOR), an international not-for-profit that aims to provide access to safe surgery for children by installing and equipping pediatric operating rooms in low-and middle-income countries.

But yes, she started out being a lawyer. Her career has always had a slant towards children. After graduating from law school Rosemary started her career as a program officer with Children's Legal Aid and Advisory Organisation as a program officer.

Here she came face to face with the suffering that besets many poor children.

"That position put me in a vantage point to appreciate many unvoiced issues affecting children, and most especially children from poor families," recalls Rosemary, "The cases I came across made me want to become an advocate for children. To always be able to amplify their issues."

Rosemary later went on to study for a Masters in Gender and Development and has served as the first female CEO at the College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa (COSECSA), a college present in 14 countries.

"This was my introduction into the health sector. I oversaw the day-to-day running of the institution and led the successful implementation of the strategic plan of the college that saw over 500 surgeons graduate in four years."

She was instrumental in developing numerous institutional policies, expansion of the secretariat, fundraising, and her networking skills created a pool of partners beneficial to the college's sustainability.

Before that, Rosemary served as a Regional Policy Coordinator at Ipas International where she co-ordinated multiple activities both in Francophone and Anglophone Africa. She was instrumental in developing the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights youth program for Africa contributory in the development of the African-Spanish Reproductive Health Framework; the East Africa Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy and the African Union Maternal death audit that gave birth to the campaign for accelerated reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa.

"Then the challenge presented itself to lead the KidsOR project," she says.

Paediatric surgeons work with children- from the womb to the age of 19.

This, according to her is an area that has long been in neglect across the region.

In our assessment, we have established that access  to  surgical  care  is  limited  by  many  factors  among them;  hospital infrastructure, limited surgical supplies, affordability, and Inadequate number of surgical workforces in the region.

Yet it is estimated that up to 11 percent of all child patients require surgery; 90 percent of them are admitted with issues easily corrected by surgery such as congenital anomalies and injuries.

"Unfortunately, many children cannot obtain the surgical care they need. Even in urban communities with more convenient access to healthcare, kids die or develop lifelong disabilities due to issues that could easily be corrected through surgery," she adds.

Common paediatric surgery cases that the equipment installed has been able to help resolve are congenital anomalies, trauma, Hirsch sprung disease, hernia, hydrocephalus, and burns.

Rosemary works closely with ministries of health, professional bodies, regional and international organisations, and non-governmental organisations to create networks, secure partnerships, and political commitments to strengthen surgery for children on the continent.

She is responsible for the operations of the Africa office that has a presence in 36 African countries. 

"We don't just install the equipment. We train pediatric surgeons and pediatric anesthesia providers; as well as enhance capacity for existing biomedical engineers in these countries," she explains. 

"Because of what use would world-class equipment be without the brains to put them into use." 

Rosemary says her compassion for children arises from her previous experiences working in different advocacy capacities, served as Senior Program Officer at Women in Law and Development in

Africa where she was involved in creating awareness of the sexual offenses Act and the Children's Act of Kenya. She also participated in the development of the police and prosecutors' manuals that guided the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act and the creation of gender desks in police posts.

"The right to health is enshrined in regulations, however, access remains a challenge," she points out. 

"I have seen the day-to-day struggles women and men go through for their children to get basic healthcare. I have also seen the power of a healthcare system that serves its people's needs. I have also witnessed the superfluous promises in countries across the region promising healthcare for all including children but never delivering. And in my years in the field I have also seen the opportunities that exist," says the mother-of-three.

Rosemary Mugwe at one of the pediatric operation rooms installed by Kids Operating Room (KidsOR) organisation. Photo | Pool

She is hopeful things will progressively improve. 

Although she says cases involving children can be heartbreaking and often involve crushing tragedy, she is often gratified when she can do something, like she is now, for the majority who are voiceless.

"It gives me satisfaction being part of that team; voice and action that brings change and have an everlasting impact on our children's lives. That gives me the drive," she says. 

The lawyer who's a lover of all things music and dance say she finds herself dancing and singing most of the time while alone.

"This might sound strange but I'm very informed on the music that is trending in the region." 

"At the social level I am introverted extrovert loud with a clutch of friends, and so private in public."

"But to be honest I would say I am a workaholic with a terrible urgent need to learn to untie from work."

"My life revolves around work, family, and more work. On the occasional weekend, I hang out with pals and enjoy a good laugh, drink, and dance."

Rosemary also has a hobby in animal husbandry specifically in rearing goats and sheep. "I just glow when I see them."

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