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Responding to Covid in Kenya: LVCT Health’s story

LVCT Health was this week named as co-recipient, alongside Dr. Mike Ryan of WHO, of Trócaire’s Romero Award. Here, LVCT Health CEO, Dr. Lilian Otiso, explains how the organisation responded to Covid-19 by protecting vulnerable young women.

By Dr. Lilian Otiso

LVCT Health has been around for over 20 years, focusing on those that are vulnerable and marginalised. We aim to strengthen the communities we serve by preventing gender-based violence and HIV infections.

We also work with government to strengthen the health systems where we know that there are major gaps. The result is we have national guidelines now and other services that are able to reach beneficiaries.

More recently we’ve worked with Trócaire to ensure that girls are able to have economic empowerment initiatives and community peer-to-peer mentorship.

We’re currently implementing a project with Trócaire to educate girls, take them back to school and ensure that they get what they deserve. So, when Covid came we were quickly able to transition that project.

The first Covid case was announced in Kenya on 13th March 2020 and this was closely followed by containment measures issued by the government, including a nationwide curfew and restrictive movement in some parts of the country. For example, you couldn’t get out of Nairobi or the greater Nairobi region and this led to loss of jobs, lack of income and increased cases of gender-based violence and insecurity. So, it made the poor and vulnerable even more desperate and made life very unbearable.

‘Should I buy a mask or food?’

I think the key lesson is that whenever these measures are put in place, we have to think of the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, so that we’re having approaches that really meet their needs. I remember hearing a lot about should I spend money on buying a mask or buying food? People are really starving. So, as you’re giving instructions like buy masks or do handwashing, we have to recognise that people may not afford that.

We’ve had two waves of Covid-19 with 103,000 cases reported so far and over just about 1,800 reported deaths and still counting. Over 3,000 health workers have been infected and 32 have died. Our staff are frontline workers so we’re worried about what this means for them. But they have gone beyond the call of duty to work with the communities and ensure that at least our communities are not left behind seeing the suffering that is caused to them because of Covid.

We responded to the pandemic in different ways. We sustained the HIV and gender-based violence services that we were providing. We gave community education on Covid-19 through our one-to-one toll-free hotline and bulk SMS messages. We also trained and retrained peer educators and community health workers to be the frontline to reach community members and gave psychosocial support for the health workers whom we knew are really facing a huge burden of the disease.

We also used some of our resources to provide basic nutrition support because people could not afford to buy food or could not get access to care. This went alongside ensuring that those who are facing gender-based violence actually got services and facilities and the HIV clients were able to get their commodities delivered to them or find a way of getting access to the services. For example, we provide courier service to deliver ARVs or pre-exposure prophylaxis.

Dr. Lilian Otiso, CEO of LVCT Health

Getting girls back into school

We already have 560 vulnerable girls in the Trócaire-funded Imara project and when schools were closed, they went home with nothing to do. Our staff thought through quickly what could happen and we transformed our safe spaces into formal learning centres where they could get online classes. Because those were going on but as is common in marginalisation, only the richer could afford that.

So, we were able to make sure that our poorer community members in informal settlements and rural settings would be able to go to those centres and receive some education support. They also got nutrition packs and hygiene packs.

To give an example, Deborah, a 16-year-old girl from an informal urban settlement, had actually dropped out of school and through the project we put her back in school. When schools shut down, she felt quite hopeless and was lost for several weeks but she felt relieved that the programme staff kept checking in on her through phone calls and other ways.

When they were able to offer their online classes, she was very happy. She said that the introduction of virtual learning was timely and would like the classes to be sustained as she feels that sometimes the home environment is not conducive for studies.

The other story is of Lois who is a single mother of four and whose daughter is a beneficiary of the Imara Project. Her daughter had initially struggled to get into a secondary school after she completed her primary school education. The project had been able to take her back to school and she also benefitted from the online classes which were structured in a way to suit the different courses.

Lois is very grateful for the project because she has two older daughters who are teenage mothers. She felt like this kind of support really took her away from peer pressure and ensure that her daughter is able to live her life and be a mentor to others.

We are happy that through Trócaire and the resilience of our teams and the beneficiaries and by Trócaire allowing us to actually adapt and respond to COVID based on the needs of the community that we’re able to really address the emerging needs.

The financial award that comes with winning Trócaire’s Romero Award will be used to equip adolescent girls and young women who already have some existing business or had business plans to just have some seed capital to start. $50 goes a long way to starting some of those small businesses and we will start with about 50 girls, some in Nairobi, some in the rural area.

I’d like to give my appreciation for our communities and beneficiaries who have really embraced our innovations and helped us to see and think through what communities actually need. I’m very grateful to the LVCT board and management and the staff who are involved in this.



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