From village boy to global voice: Dr Githinji's journey to champion gender equality

 Amref Health Africa CEO Dr Githinji Gitahi during an interview at his home in Karen, Nairobi on June 12, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Dr Githinji Gitahi, the global CEO of Amref Health Africa, is a fervent advocate for gender equality.
  • Despite facing backlash, he remains steadfast in using his privilege and platform to promote women's leadership, address issues like FGM and reproductive health, and inspire men to be allies in the fight for gender parity.
  • Through his multifaceted approach combining policy, community engagement, and education, he envisions a progressive and prosperous society where barriers for women are removed.

Dr Githinji Gitahi, the global CEO of Amref Health Africa, exudes a warm and approachable demeanour. Despite his esteemed position, there is no air of a typical CEO when we meet him at his residence in Nairobi County. He is an accommodating and attentive listener, and our conversation flows effortlessly.

He ushers us into his huge and modestly decorated living room and within no time, we are having a hearty one-on-one with him, trying to understand the genesis of his passion for gender equality.

In a world still grappling with gender inequality, Dr Githinji has emerged as a fervent advocate for the cause. His protest at the UN World Health Assembly last year, where he walked off an all-male panel discussing issues that disproportionately affect women, has reignited the debate on gender representation.

"It's not just about fairness; it's about getting the job done well," he asserts, underscoring the importance of diverse perspectives.

A young Dr Githinji with his parents and older siblings.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Dr Githinji passionately offers, "A woman is the best public health officer I've ever met. My mother, who had nine children, no formal education, and was married at 17, gave birth in 1952 during the war with no medical assistance. Yet, she alone ensured our survival through her resilience and care."

Revisiting his protest at the Global Health forum, where he walked off an all-male panel, he confidently states that it was not a one-off event. "I made a commitment to extend my male allyship to women," he explains.

"By the nature of their gender, men are naturally favoured by society – a male privilege. So, I intentionally extend this privilege to women by advocating for their rights and giving them a voice."

With unwavering resolve, Dr Githinji adds, "I have also committed to never speaking on forums where women are not included. I will not speak or contribute where women are not involved. This is a rule I uphold even at Amref. If I find myself in another all-male panel, I will respectfully leave."

A picture of Dr Githinji Gitahi (right) with his father. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Dr Githinji’s journey began in humble beginnings in 1970, in the rural village of Nyeri, Central Kenya, where he was born the eighth of nine children to a peasant farmer mother and an informal labourer father who worked in Nairobi.

"My mother worked tirelessly, ensuring we all got an education," he reflects.

His childhood was marked by long, arduous walks to school, a testament to his commitment to learning from an early age.

"I checked the other day; it must have been about 3.5km to school and back. So that would be 7km every day, sometimes 14km if I went home for lunch," he recounts.

Dr Githinji's academic journey led him to Nyeri High School for his O-levels and then to Mangu High School for his A-levels, where a twist of fate directed him towards a career in medicine.

"I was initially placed in a physics class, which was too crowded, so they moved some of us to a biology class. That's how I ended up in medicine," he recounts enthusiastically, reflecting on the serendipitous turn of events that shaped his future.

His path to becoming a doctor was shaped by his inherent interest in life sciences and the influence of his older brother, Prof Stephen Kiama, a veterinarian by profession.

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Dr Githinji and his older brother Prof Stephen Kiama in this file photo.

"Seeing him exhuming dog bones to study them sparked my interest in life sciences," he notes, crediting his brother's passion for his chosen field as an early inspiration.

Despite the challenges of transitioning from a rural village to the University of Nairobi (UoN) to study medicine, Dr Githinji excelled, eventually becoming the best final-year student of his class in 1996.

Reflecting on his educational journey, Dr Githinji describes a childhood marked by resilience and determination.

"Growing up in a village, my siblings and I walked several kilometres to school each day. Education was a precious opportunity my parents valued immensely," he shares, highlighting the profound impact his upbringing had on instilling a love for learning and a drive to succeed. This passion for education and desire to make a difference in his community would later define his career path.

After completing high school, Dr Githinji took on his first job as an untrained teacher at a local secondary school in Nyeri, earning a modest Sh1,100 per month at just 20 years old. This opportunity, he shares, instilled in him a strong sense of work ethic, as his colleagues were significantly more experienced, yet he was expected to deliver at the same level as them.

"That job also helped me develop a strong sense of social justice," he reflects, recalling a time when he mobilised the staff and students to write a protest letter against the principal's unfair treatment of students, which he personally delivered to Jogoo House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Education.

"It was a bold move, driven by a desire to see justice done," he says, acknowledging that this early experience in advocacy and leadership laid a solid foundation for his future roles.

Dr Githinji's commitment to gender equality is deeply personal. "Why am I passionate about gender equality? It's simple," he asserts. "Women-led and women-responsive policies result in less child and maternal mortality, less malaria, less malnutrition. Fewer people die."

Growing up with sisters and witnessing his mother's resilience have profoundly influenced his views on this issue. He maintains a close relationship with his mother, frequently seeking her wisdom and perspective.

"My mother is my hero," he shares warmly. "Even now, I call her almost every day. My dad passed away a few years ago, but mum is still alive. I call her as often as I can and whenever I get a chance, I visit her in the village."

Dr Githinji poses for a picture with his wife and his mother Teresiah Wanjugu.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Dr Githinji firmly believes that men must champion the cause of gender equality.

"Men need to understand that advocating for women is not against men; it's about having women on the table alongside men. We must remove the barriers preventing women from participating fully," he emphasises. This perspective is a call to action for men to be active participants in the quest for gender equality, recognising that the benefits resulting from this are societal and not gender-specific.

Despite his advocacy, Dr Githinji acknowledges facing backlash from both men and women.

"Some people see gender equality as a threat, while others doubt the sincerity of my advocacy - some assume I do it to attract donor-funding. But we must persist," he says.

This resilience in the face of opposition underscores his unwavering commitment to the cause of gender equality.

With studies showing that about 70 per cent of women run the medical field, yet only 25 per cent occupy leadership positions, Dr Githinji says Amref, under his leadership, is actively working to change that.

"We have a policy that helps us be deliberate in promoting women into leadership roles," he explains. His efforts to address gender disparity in leadership within the medical field reflect a broader commitment to equity and inclusivity.

Dr Githinji is vocal about women's reproductive health issues, recognising the significance of these matters and the need to address them openly.

"Reproductive health issues are significant, and we must address them openly. There is a stigma attached to these diseases that we need to overcome." He also acknowledges the presence of medical misogyny, stating, "Women's health issues are often not taken as seriously as they should be, and this needs to change."

Teen pregnancies are another significant issue that he is passionate about addressing. "We need to educate young people about sexual health rather than punish them. Sex education should be introduced in schools early, around the age of 10, to prepare children for the changes they will experience," he advises.

Harmful practice

Addressing the complex issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Dr Githinji explains, "FGM is deeply rooted in cultural practices. To eradicate it, we must understand and engage with these cultural roots, working closely with communities to change harmful traditions. While legal measures are necessary, they alone are not sufficient." He acknowledges the rising trend of medicalised FGM but believes this too, can be stopped by addressing the root cause – the cultural beliefs driving the practice.

Dr Githinji emphasises the need for a multifaceted approach that combines education, community engagement, and legal enforcement to combat this harmful practice effectively.

On achieving gender parity, he believes in leading by example. "We must stop making excuses. The UN Women's prediction that it will take 300 years to achieve gender parity is a wake-up call. We need male allyship and a commitment to remove barriers now," he insists. His call to action highlights the pressing need to address gender disparities head-on, underscoring the critical role men can play as allies in this pursuit.

Dr Githinji, who openly shares videos of himself doing household chores on social media, is also outspoken about the issue of unpaid labour. "Unpaid care work is rooted in history, where men provided land and women provided labour. Today, we need to see ourselves as equal players in society," he asserts.

"If I wake up in the morning and need breakfast, I will fix it myself - my wife doesn't have to wake up and do it for me. And this is a culture we have also instilled in our children."

Reflecting on his accomplished career, Dr Githinji highlights two pivotal moments. "Bringing the voice of Africa to the global space on health to be respected is one of my proudest achievements. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke our true sentiments, and they were respected. Even if I left Amref now, there is great respect for African voices in the global health arena," he shares with pride.

His career path is a testament to his dedication to public health and gender equality; from his beginnings as a village boy to becoming a global leader.

"I've always been driven by a need to change lives, not ambition," he reflects.

After completing his medical degree, he worked in various capacities, each role shaping his understanding of healthcare and leadership. His transition from practicing medicine to administrative roles was driven by a desire to address systemic issues within the healthcare system.

His journey took him from Avenue Hospital, to Madison Insurance, and eventually to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). His roles in these organisations expanded his expertise in health management and consumer behaviour.

"Healthcare is about consumer behaviour. Well-being and mental health are about consumer behaviour," he notes.

His work at GSK, particularly in marketing and strategy, further honed his skills in bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and consumer needs, a critical aspect of effective healthcare delivery.

Positive change

In 2007, Dr Githinji transitioned to the media industry, joining Nation Media Group as the General Manager for Marketing and Circulation, later becoming the CEO of Monitor Publications Limited in Uganda. This transition from health to media showcased his versatility and ability to lead in diverse sectors. His work in media involved not only managing operations but also advocating for the inclusion of health and social issues in media coverage, underscoring his commitment to raising awareness and driving positive change.

His return to the health sector saw him take on the role of Regional Director for Africa for Smile Train, a position that allowed him to leverage his medical background and corporate experience to drive significant health initiatives across the continent. His tenure here prepared him for his current role at Amref Health Africa, where he has continued to champion the cause of gender equality and public health with unwavering dedication.

As a father, Dr Githinji is intentional in his approach to parenting, fostering an environment of open communication with his children.

"I speak to my daughters and sons openly, and about everything. There is no taboo topic in my house," he shares.

He recalls a particularly memorable moment five years ago, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD 25) event held in Nairobi.

"I was invited to give closing remarks at one of the youth events. My two daughters were attending, and I called them on stage and decided to have a conversation with them about contraception. I asked each of them if they were on contraceptives. This was not pre-planned, so my older daughter, who was 22 at the time, said yes, she was on contraception, and my younger daughter, 19 then, said not yet, but she knew I would support her and pay for the services when she was ready. And that's just an example of the conversations we have in my house," he shares proudly.

Dr Githinji's commitment to public health and gender equality is evident in his work and future vision. He believes that addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach.

"We need to create systems that support gender equality at all levels, from the household to the workplace, to the highest levels of government," he emphasizes, recognising the need for comprehensive and systemic change.

One of his key initiatives at Amref Health Africa has been the promotion of women in leadership roles within the organisation.

"We are actively identifying and nurturing female leaders to ensure they have the skills and opportunities to advance," he says.

This initiative is part of a broader strategy to address gender disparities in the health sector and beyond, fostering an environment where women can thrive and contribute their talents and perspectives.

Dr Githinji's advocacy also recognises the importance of engaging men and boys in the quest for gender equality.

"Men and boys must be part of the solution," he asserts.

"We need to educate them about the benefits of gender equality and encourage them to challenge harmful gender norms."

Throughout our conversation, Dr Githinji's passion for gender equality and public health is palpable, a driving force that has shaped his life's work. His experiences growing up in a large family, his academic journey, and his professional achievements have all contributed to his deep commitment to these issues.

"My mother's resilience and determination have been a constant source of inspiration for me. She taught me the importance of education, hard work, and caring for others," he reflects.

Dr Githinji shares personal insights into the challenges he has faced and the lessons he has learned along the way.

"Leadership is not just about making decisions; it's about listening to people, understanding their needs, and working together to find solutions," he says, emphasising the importance of collaboration, empathy, and inclusive decision-making.

His vision for the future is one of hope and determination, a belief that through collective effort and unwavering commitment, progress can be achieved. "We have made progress, but there is still much work to be done. We need to stay focused, stay committed, and continue to advocate for change," he asserts.

His story serves as a powerful reminder of the impact one individual can have in championing the cause of equality and justice for all. His journey from a humble village upbringing to a global leadership role has been driven by a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to creating a better world for all.

"A choice to remove the barriers in the way for women is not a choice against boys and men. It is a choice for a society that is progressive, worthy, and prosperous," he concludes.