WOMEN LEAD: A Conversation with Dorothy Onyango: Empowering Women with HIV and Youth

 {Photo credit: Elizabeth Walsh/MSH.}Dorothy Onyango, founder and executive director of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), talks with MSH about WOFAK, her role as a leader and mentor, and how women are contributing to moving towards an AIDS-free generation.Photo credit: Elizabeth Walsh/MSH.

In Kenya, civil society organizations are on the frontline of health service delivery at the community level. At least 50 percent of healthcare services to communities in Kenya are provided through the nongovernmental sector, which is made up primarily of civil society organizations.

Dorothy Onyango is the founder and executive director of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), a civil society organization established in 1994. Ms. Onyango launched WOFAK after learning of her own seropositive status in 1990 and seeing how few services and resources were available for HIV-positive women. Starting off as a small meeting place for 10 women, WOFAK now operates programs across Kenya, providing for the basic needs of women living positively with HIV while also nurturing and supporting them to become transformative leaders.

MSH spoke with Ms. Onyango about WOFAK, her role as a leader and mentor, and how women are contributing to moving towards an AIDS-free generation. MSH has been working with Ms. Onyango since 2012 through the USAID- and PEPFAR-funded FANIKISHA Institutional Strengthening Project.

Tell us about WOFAK and the people it serves.

"WOFAK has been in existence since 1994, and it came about as a result of my own sero-status, diagnosed in 1990. In 1992, I had the privilege of attending the 8th International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, and before the conference there was a pre-conference for women from all over the world who were living positively. Out of the 54 women, 24 were from Africa. At that time there was no care available, so the idea came to me that when I returned home, I would start some sort of group that would help women living with HIV. By then HIV was highly stigmatized in this country…. I was doing marketing at that time and had an office. I brought some of my friends on board who were also positive and we started informally around 1993; in 1994 we formally registered the organization. We got $500 from the World Health Organization (WHO), and had some ladies on board who were already good at proposal writing. The first main funding that we got was from the Ford Foundation, and from then we have never looked back.

Today we have nine branches country wide, mostly in areas that have high HIV prevalence. We are committed to the care and support to our members, who are women and children infected and affected by the scourge. We carry out different projects in different areas depending on the need of our members. For example in Nyanza, we help support grandmothers who are taking care of orphans and vulnerable children, focusing on economic empowerment, providing start-up funds and farming inputs and uniforms to school children.

In Mombasa, we are working with young mothers to empower them and to support them, and to have them come to the clinic for health services. We also have youth-friendly services in eight centers country wide; in each health facility we have set up a desk for the youths, where they can come and share their experiences and have health talks with the counselors, and of course, the main purpose is for them to access health services in a friendly environment."

[WOFAK youth leaders marching in Mombasa, Kenya, on World AIDS Day 2013.] {Photo credit: WOFAK.}WOFAK youth leaders marching in Mombasa, Kenya, on World AIDS Day 2013.Photo credit: WOFAK.

What are some of WOFAK’s challenges?

"The biggest challenge is fundraising. Right now, 30 years down the line from the epidemic, everyone thinks HIV is no longer a priority. Yet there are still people dying of HIV; children being born with HIV; stigma in rural areas; and widows, orphans, and widowers still in need of support. There is need to mobilize resources to ensure that we don’t lose what we have gained over the many years. There is still a lot of work to be done. Discovering medicines is not the end of our work. We still have many years to go."

How has FANIKISHA made a difference in addressing these challenges?

"WOFAK has been giving services to the community since its inception as a service delivery organization. When we applied to work with FANIKISHA, we realized that as much as we had some policies in place, we needed to have them reviewed and others developed if we wanted to improve our work in the community.  So far we have developed policy documents and have had them approved by the board. During the Annual General Meeting (AFM) of 2013, our constitution was ratified (courtesy of FANIKISHA), and we elected new board members. We also developed and launched our strategic plan, a five year strategy for 2013-2017, at a colorful ceremony in 2013.

We have seen the importance of having qualified board members–not just HIV+ people but people who can bring different skills to the organization. Until this last election, 90 percent of our board members were people living with HIV, but now we have a new constitution that says we can elect other members who are skilled and can support the organization to move forward. We now have a governance manual that governs the board members."

As the leader of a civil society organization in Kenya, what are some of the biggest issues you see in the health sector today?

"Sexual and reproductive health rights, especially for young women; cancer; HIV in terms of screening. At the same time, we’re looking at integrating our services in health facilities, but as I mentioned stigma is still a hindrance [against people living with HIV and AIDS] and so it is important that the health facility integrate services so that it is not a standalone for PLHIV services to encourage more young people to access the services.

WOFAK works with young people especially women, not necessarily women living with HIV, but young women in the reproductive age on health right issues. We want them to be well equipped with information about their reproductive health and rights to be able to protect themselves. And of course, we don’t forget the inclusion of children–we want to be sure that people are empowered with their rights even from school age. It is my wish that sexual and reproductive health rights would be integrated into the curriculum. I would suggest that we have youth-friendly services for all our youth in Kenya."

What particular skills do you feel a leader needs to be effective?

"Management skills are very important. There have been quite a number of trainings that we have gone through with FANIKISHA: continuous skill building; learning through experience, sharing with other organizations. Considering that I’ve been in this field for more than 25 years now, I learned a lot of these skills both formally and informally."

What about gender? Are there differences in your leadership style or specific challenges you face because you are a woman?

"I’ve learned the skill of working with all genders. Our vision is an organization that supports women but of course we work with men. The women started the organization, but there are quite a lot of men involved.

I sit on the National AIDS Council, where I chair the programs committee and I’m on the executive committee, too. This year, I’ve just been appointed by the Cabinet Secretary to serve on the board of the National Council for Children’s Services for three years… So you can see the contributions of women are very important."

[Dorothy Onyango (left) with WOFAK colleagues in Kibera, Kenya, on World AIDS Day 2013.] {Photo credit: WOFAK.}Dorothy Onyango (left) with WOFAK colleagues in Kibera, Kenya, on World AIDS Day 2013.Photo credit: WOFAK.

Is there any advice you would give to younger women aspiring to leadership positions?

"It is important to strengthen and empower young women to become leaders. When I’m not here, WOFAK will have to continue, so it is very important to groom people. Working closely with other women leaders, getting their ideas of how things are done and getting trainings in leadership and mentorship is key. Many young people I have worked with consider me a role model. I have been a leader for a long time: I was the chair for the International Community of Women of Living with HIV and one of the many things we did in the international community was deliberately include young women in leadership positions. I was also the first chair of Network of People living with HIV (NEPHAK), and right now am a board member of Pan African Network of Women Living with HIV, which is a regional network. Because of my work to the community I have been awarded the presidential award by President Moi and President Kibaki. I look forward to continue supporting the country through our efforts in WOFAK."

Elizabeth Walsh, director of communications of the Center for Leadership and Management at MSH, interviewed Onyango during a recent trip to Kenya.