In Kitui County, First Lady is a Ray of Hope for Advancing Reproductive Health and Rights
Edith Mawia Malombe has always had a soft spot for underdogs.
“When I was a child, I would get into trouble for giving away my shoes and stealing food from my mother’s cupboard for those in need,” she laughs. “I did not have the words to articulate it at the time, but I am really passionate about justice, fairness, and a sense of equality in society. That is what motivates me.”
Not much has changed since then. Today, Edith, a lawyer by training, is the first lady of Kitui County — a county which she describes as an underdog in many ways. Home to more than a million people, 60 percent of Kitui County residents live below the poverty line, and 40 percent of girls have given birth by the time they are 19 years old. Kitui County is also one of two counties with the highest levels of stunting among children. The challenges are significant, but Edith sees signs of hope and progress everywhere, particularly around reproductive health.
She is the founder of the Kyeni Foundation, whose interventions are centered on linking health, education, and economic empowerment. Kyeni (pronounced cheni) means “light,” and since becoming first lady, Edith has been instrumental in improving the sexual and reproductive health of women and young people in Kitui County.
Why a focus on reproductive health?
“Health is a right. People must be well to realize any meaningful development in their own lives and in the development of our county,” Edith explains.
As a county first lady, she is one of 47 champions of the Beyond Zero campaign, a national initiative spearheaded by Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta. The campaign seeks to improve maternal and child health outcomes and accelerate progress on reducing mother to child transmission of HIV. A key feature of the program is providing mobile clinics to counties so they can reach women in the most remote areas with maternal health services and supplies. With Edith as a champion, Kitui became the first county in Kenya to purchase two more mobile clinics with its own funds.
Edith points out proudly that the two additional mobile clinics purchased by the county are even larger than those provided by the central government. The mobile health clinics have been critical in providing much-needed services, but getting buy-in from the county assembly to invest in them has not always been easy.
At first the assembly thought, “Oh this is just a pet project of the Governor’s wife.” But then they started seeing the results. Now they tell Edith, “We need you to do more.”
It’s a good thing. Edith will need the assembly’s support on her latest advocacy objective. With an award from the Opportunity Fund, Kyeni Foundation is working to establish a 3.1 million shilling budget line for family planning commodities.
“Looking at family planning, we can see it is a major component of reducing maternal deaths.” However, Edith cautions that advocacy, especially with the county assembly, is key to ensuring family planning is a county priority.
The governor is supportive and he is expected to present a budget to the county assembly that will include a budget line for family planning. The question is the level at which commodities will be funded. That will be decided in the next month in negotiations with the county assembly.
Whatever happens, Edith is committed to improving the sexual and reproductive health of Kitui County residents from a holistic perspective.
“If I can achieve anything in my lifetime, it would be to leave a legacy that brings rays of hope to one person at a time to improve their health and economic well-being. I hope we can keep partnering with like-minded organizations like PAI and Advance Family Planning to make Kitui County the first among its peers in Kenya.”