I am Simavi - Juliana Kiio: A story of resilience
Juliana Kiio (32) Simavi Knowledge Management and Adaptation Officer/ AMID Programme Trainee - Kenya
Text by Lula Ahrens
Juliana Kiio is an expert on the empowerment of women and girls. That started with her own empowerment: she was the first girl in her village to join a public university. Since joining Simavi in 2022 as an Advanced Master’s in International Development (AMID) Trainee, she works as a Knowledge Management and Adaptation Officer in Kenya. She supports the partner organisations of Simavi that implement water and sanitation projects. Her goal is to help women and girls to empower themselves and strengthen their capacity to advocate for their rights. For example through influencing government and water companies' decisions. ‘The most painful struggles that affect women in Kenya are about water.’
Could you tell us something about your background?
‘I was born and raised Makueni County, one of Kenya’s ASAL regions, in a very vulnerable community where very few children go beyond secondary education. My dad died when I was three. I’m the last born of nine children. As the first girl in my village, I joined a provincial secondary school due to my good grades with temporary financial support from my sister. I performed very well, and the community was proud of me. Girls used to come up to me and ask: How did you do it?
It was tough. I survived on donations sometimes. I went to university with the support of a higher education loans board, even though the community couldn’t understand the benefits of a woman getting a university degree. Right now, I’m very proud of being able to support my family. My sisters’ kids go to school. Some have joined universities, like me. Every time I talk to my mum, I can feel her joy, her happiness that she can refer to me as her daughter. The community respects her.’
What aspects of your work are you most passionate about?
‘I empower women through capacity and knowledge provision to advocate for their rights through influencing and engaging powerholders through public participation meetings with duty bearers like the Government officials and Water companies to advance provision of adequate, accessible and affordable WASH services. The most painful struggles that affect women in Kenya are about water. Having water in your household will release a huge burden for you as a woman. It will reduce work time so you can shift your focus to for instance running a small business. My favourite projects are those that give women and girls space for economic, political and social empowerment.’
Simavi wants to be an equal partner to the organisations we work with. How do you experience that?
‘The relationship we have with the partners is one of mutual accountability. Our partners lead in decision making processes and design the programmes. They understand the context and the people they’re working with, and engage the communities and local stakeholders.
I consider that as crucial, since many NGO’s and donors are still oriented towards their own thinking. It’s about time that changes. Our programmes have to resonate with the struggles of the local people. We have to understand those struggles when we define a human right. You can fund girls to go to school, but are you also addressing the pain and the family struggles that go with that? Are you addressing their deeply engrained thoughts on why she shouldn’t go to school? How do you stand up for your right to go to school when you don’t have food, or when your parents and community don’t see the point? You can’t push your agenda on a community that still needs to understand its own perspectives and barriers. First you should allow people to make sense of what you’re trying to achieve.’
Does your expertise help Simavi on this path?
‘It’s important to understand the struggles and vulnerabilities of the local context. Organisations tend to ignore that context and impose their own agendas. Let me explain this from my own experience. Simavi may have brought me in because of the strength that I carry, but it’s very difficult to feel strong when your story is full of vulnerabilities. At least I’ve been through an empowerment process which allows me to talk. But I’m telling you many women don’t talk because of those vulnerabilities. They always ask themselves: if I do, what will people say?’
Can we solve problems with water and sanitation and the climate crisis without the voice of these women?
‘Vocal, empowered women have the potential to be major contributors to climate change adaptation, because almost everything they do is connected to nature. However, Kenya is facing both climatic crises and serious water and food shortages. The whole world is moving towards addressing climate change. But the world shouldn’t forget that we have to address both the immediate and long-term needs of the communities we serve. Therefore, it is important to continue supporting local NGO’s and civil society organisations which empower local communities to question faulty systems and ensure communities are part of the development process.‘
What drives you in your quest for change and impact in Kenya?
‘I was the first girl in my village to join a public university. Ever since, my focus has been on women. Showing other girls: believe in yourselves, you can do it as a woman - that is the motivation that keeps me going. The little success I’ve had so far is a story of resilience. I’m the village girl who beat the odds. To see my own potential and translate that back to girls and women in the village; that makes me happy. I want to tell them: you can change and walk through this journey. At the end of the day, I see myself in them. And I want them to see in themselves a reflection of me.
Juliana Kiio supports the designing, implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation of three projects i.e. Connect4WASH (working title)Project, European Union -Water Operators Project ( EU-WOP) and the Water Justice Fund in patriarchal rural Kenyan communities where women barely have opportunities in education, employment and land ownership; girls marry early and many suffer sexual and gender-based violence and female genital mutilation.
On behalf of Simavi, she collaborates with three local partners; The Kenya Water and Sanitation Civil Society Network (KEWASNET), Neighbours Initiative Alliance (NIA) in Kajiado county and The Centre for Social Planning, Administrative Development (CESPAD) working in Makueni County and various Water Companies (Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company, Kiambua County Water and Sewerage Company, Oloolaiser Water and Sewerage Company, Amatsi Water Services Company, Kakamega County Water and Sanitation Company and Mombasa Water Supply & Sanitation Company).
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