Written by: Managing Director JULIUS MBEYA
Julius Mbeya is an advocate for social justice and believes that lasting change happens when communities develop and drive solutions to local problems. He believes that our lives are implicated in those of others and that the world would be a better place when justice and fairness reigns. He and his wife, Beatrice Achieng’ Okere, are also parents to three girls: Barbara (11), Sovereign (8), and Athaliah (4).
A friend recently shared with me a book called “Gold in Fathering.” Even though I have not finished reading it, the chronology of failure in fathering is disheartening. This book suggests that the failure of men to be fathers is a contributor to the many social ills affecting society today. While this premise may be contested, it does not discount the stark difference between siring and fathering, and in the world today, we have far too many sires and not enough fathers.
While not distinguishing myself from the general failure in fathering, I face the challenge to father three girls. The short experience I have had in being a father to my daughters Barbara (11), Sovereign (8) and Athaliah (4) has been anything but full of surprises. Nothing could have prepared me to undertake this task. Each of the girls is unique in her temperaments, likes and dislikes, and her response to situations and circumstances in life is so varied. While there is no rule book on how to be a good father, their being in my life has shaped me in fundamental ways.
The demand to a father of girls is even more complex and harder to separate from everyday work.
Take for example my work at Lwala Community Alliance. It scares me to think that if Barbara were living in Migori County in southwestern Kenya, she could very likely be sexually active and even more dreading have a 30% chance of contracting HIV. The probability that she would get pregnant before the age of 20 would be four times the national average. Further, Sovereign, in Grade 4 in a Migori County primary school, would probably not be able to read a paragraph in English or solve a Grade 2 arithmetic problem. Athaliah, who is looking forward to her 5th birthday in March, would not be having a similar sense of hope and confidence in celebrating birthday number 5.
While, the above may sound like an exaggeration to many, it is the reality we face in Migori County, Kenya. How is it possible that mere geography and a distance of less than 250 miles (the distance between Lwala and Nairobi) would present such a stark difference in the lives of two children?
Here is how: The HIV prevalence rate in Migori County is the fourth highest nationally at 14.7%. The average prevalence rate for the four Lake Victoria basin counties of Siaya, Kisumu, Homabay, and Migori is 21%. That is more than three times the national prevalence rate of 6%! The latest Kenya Demographic and Health Survey shows the rate of teen pregnancy across counties with Migori at 24.3% compared to the national average of 18.1%. Now, you can begin to understand the dangers faced by Barbara’s peers.
Turning to education attainment, while school enrollment for boys and girls is almost at par in Sovereign’s Grade 4 class, statistics begin to shift significantly by Grade 6, and by the time these students graduate from primary school in Grade 8, only 37% of those completing school are girls. For Athaliah, many children will not celebrate their 5th birthday with her.
Luckily, this is why I love my work in Lwala because LWALA IS A GAME CHANGER. What I do is not merely work. I care for the children of Lwala as a father would, even if I may never know their names.
As a community-founded and community-led social innovator, Lwala works directly with communities and local government in Migori County to counter the drivers of ill health and other social determinants. In recent years, we have brought hope and health to more than 30,000 people in parts of Migori County and are working to ensure that fathers, like myself, can look to the future for their children with confidence. A future where fathers do not feel numbed by the magnitude of the problem but are equipped with tools and skills to counter the challenges in bringing up their children.
That is why in 2015, we provided clinical care to 30,000 patients at Lwala, thereby ensuring that 98% or higher of HIV-exposed infants test HIV-negative at 18 months. 6,962 women are receiving 12 months of contraception while 80% of women delivering having attended four or more prenatal visits compared to 41% in other parts of the county. Further, we have enrolled 1,107 HIV clients on care.
In order to ensure that Athaliah’s peers see their 5th birthday, we have deployed 80 Community Health Workers to support 3,258 households with children under 5, leading to a 30% decrease in under-5 child deaths, and an unimaginable 300% increase in family planning services since 2011.
Sovereign can take comfort that there are other girls sharing in her future as we mentor 288 girls in Grade 6 or higher, reaching 6,795 youth with sexual and reproductive health education or counseling, 1,712 youth accessing family planning services, 802 girls receiving pads and/or uniforms, and 40 students receiving secondary school sponsorships through our partnerships with Education for all Children and Kenya Education Fund.
This Father’s Day, I call on you to join me — together with other fathers — to bring health and hope to many more children and to guarantee the future of our children in Migori County and beyond.
You can help us sustain our existing programs and roll out further initiatives by making a donation now.