“Women need to be empowered to make their voices heard” – Coffee with Makena Mwobobia, ActionAid International Kenya’s Executive Director

29 January 2019

Makena Mwobobia is the Executive Director of Action Aid International Kenya and recently joined CHS Alliance’s Board. With over 25 years of experience in development work and more than ten years in humanitarian action, working for organisations such as Plan International and the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), she is a passionate advocate of women’s empowerment and fierce defender of women’s rights. Makena is also a mother of five, with six grandchildren.

Makena Mwobobia

Action Aid International Kenya puts a strong focus on women. Where does your commitment to women’s empowerment come from?

When completing my studies in the United States, I was temporarily employed by the Methodist Church of Kenya, where I was tasked to explore women’s role in development. By liaising with women church leaders, I realised that in order for women to gain better recognition and more space in leadership, they needed to organise themselves. Then I got a job with Plan International, where for the very first time I became engaged with poverty in rural Kenya. The experience of working with disadvantaged women who were vulnerable to abuse changed my thinking about power dynamics. Later, in 2006, I got involved with Action Aid International’s working group on women’s rights so, overall, it was really a journey for me to develop an understanding and passion for women’s right.

When you went to rural Kenya, was there a memorable moment that made you focus on women?

I remember conducting a home visit. We met with a pregnant woman carrying water and firewood. She was also carrying a baby on her back. a She was doing so many things simultaneously while her husband was at the market. We had a discussion, and I found out more about her daily life. I recall myself thinking “it cannot be a human being doing all these things”. That was definitely an eye-opening experience for me.

But let me share another story. The government of Kenya once launched a food aid programme to address drought. There was this lady, Elisabeth, a mother of three, whose husband was visually impaired and didn’t have any income. After three years being in the programme she approached us to get off the food aid list, saying: “I am self-sufficient, I have enough food and I am also taking some of it to the market.” I told myself that these were the kinds of programmes we should be putting in place, those that empower women to improve their own situation.

Why do you think it is important to include women in humanitarian response?

In our sector, when we talk about accountability, we still mostly think of it as an upward process, and we often forget about people, especially women. Women in this regard are in a special position because they need to be empowered to make their voices heard. For example, in mixed focus groups they are silent, do not share some of their concerns, but in women’s groups they talk openly. This is important, as they know their needs the best, and once they have the space to make decisions, they are going to make the right ones and lead by example.

To achieve this, we need to change how women think of themselves. We try to do it through our initiative called ‘community-led participatory change practices’, where we link assistance with the development of leadership skills.

Advocating for women’s rights and empowerment sometimes can lead to tensions. Have you had any challenges?

Changing power dynamics and overcoming harmful patriarchal practices is never easy. It is never a painless process. Let me give you an example. There is a region in Northern Kenya where female genital mutilation (FGM) stands at 90%. Three years ago, we started an awareness-raising programme. Due to our efforts, women became more self-aware and even some emerging women leaders started to openly challenge the practice of FGM and other power dynamics. At one point, men tried to intervene and block these developments, and there was a backlash. This showed us how important it is to help these communities to create their own protection mechanisms, as Action Aid International cannot always be there to mitigate these potential effects.

Based on your experience, what are the most important actions to improve quality and accountability in our work?

We have already talked about the importance of empowering women, and one of its aspects is to involve them from the very first stage of the humanitarian response, namely at the planning stage. I believe this is crucial, as they are the ones who best know their needs. Naturally, this can be said not just about women, but about the whole community. There has to be a constant dialogue amongst stakeholders. All processes must be open and transparent, and communities need to take the lead, their voice must influence the way aid organisations respond. This brings us to communication, where I see some challenges. The language that we use can be difficult to understand for some communities. We need to adapt and have some messages translated to local languages, so that everyone can fully understand our practices and actions.

For us, it is also particularly important to develop a good relationship with the government, which is the primary duty bearer for the protection, respect and fulfilment of people’s rights. Humanitarian response and development work is a shared effort; therefore, we need to have the government on board and complement each other. But, most of all, people must understand their rights, their role as citizens, which involves holding the government and other organizations to account whenever needed.

We talked about women’s empowerment, but what is Action Aid’s approach to safeguarding?

In 2018, when the sector was shocked by the safeguarding crisis, we were in talks with DFID for funding. As a result, we got engaged in further discussions on how reinforce our safeguarding measures. Now we have various policies and processes in place to prevent abuse. We have also recruited specialised staff members to give guidance and support. We also ensure that our partners and contractors adhere to our safeguarding measures.

Why is it important for you to be a member of the Board of the CHS Alliance?

Firs off all, I have to say that I am really excited to be part of an organisation that advocates for the voices of people affected by crisis to be heard, an organisation that is building a global movement to improve the quality and accountability of humanitarian work.

I am hoping to explore how the CHS can ensure that women are heard and how the Standard can support their active engagement and transformative leadership within the system. I believe we can all learn from Amina’s journey, a community member from Baringo County, who is now in the leadership team of the Tangulbei Disaster Management Committee and the Tangulbei Women’s Network. Her story is a good example of empowerment, as she is now taking ownership of her community’s needs. She is engaged with key stakeholders to improve humanitarian and development action.