Member Spotlight: Changing Lives in Kenya

Alison Nakamura Netter is on a mission to get adolescent girls the support they need to fully realize their potential.

For the executive director of ZanaAfrica Foundation, that means expanding access to menstrual products and reproductive health education in Kenya, where shame and stigma around menstruation persist. The goal? “Creating a gender-equal world,” said Alison, who has worked for the nonprofit since 2015.

That goal aligns with this year’s #EachforEqual theme for International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8. The idea behind it is, quite simply: “An equal world is an enabled world.”

Alison and her colleagues will work throughout the month of March to raise $10,000 to help support ZanaAfrica’s programs that serve roughly 3,500 adolescents each year. “Zana” is the Kiswahili word for “tools,” and part of the organization’s mission is to equip girls in Kenya with tools like sanitary pads and related health education, since two out of three cannot obtain them.

Menstruation is “such a natural part of girls’ lives,” Alison said. “We need to normalize it.”

While most of the ZanaAfrica team is based in Nairobi, Alison, a KettleSpace Member, works remotely. On a typical day, she might talk to a representative from a United Nations agency about partnership opportunities, a donor about how financial support impacts the lives of girls, and a board member about plans for fundraising activities; carve out time for an interview with a global media outlet pursuing a story on the menstrual equity movement; review organizational finances; and finalize a grant application. And she does it all from KettleSpace’s co-working location at Crave Fishbar on the Upper West Side.

At least once a year, Alison travels to Kenya to immerse herself in the on-the-ground work that has been taking place since Megan White Mukuria founded ZanaAfrica in 2007.

In Kilifi, where there are high rates of teenage pregnancy, child marriage, and sexual abuse, ZanaAfrica runs after-school programs in 10 primary schools, Alison said. Aside from providing sanitary pads and underpants to girls, the organization offers a reproductive health curriculum and produces a magazine to go along with it.

ZanaAfrica also matches program participants with mentors who field a range of questions, such as “When having my period, am I expected to remain silent?” and “Why don’t boys have these problems?”

The mentors provide “safe spaces,” and boys are invited to join, too. After all, Alison said, “You can’t make large-scale change without educating an entire community.”

Alison noted that ZanaAfrica’s interventions have helped with girls’ self-confidence, self-actualization, and understanding of gender norms.

“We’ve seen their lives completely change,” she said. But the work isn’t done. “We want to ensure that every girl is going to be in the driver’s seat of her own life.”

About the Author

Sarah Latson is a freelance writer and editor who teaches journalism in New Jersey.

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Photos credit - ZanaAfrica Foundation.