REDHILL, United Kingdom — Widows and Orphans in Rural Kenya (W.O.R.K.) is a charity centered around improving the lives of widows and orphans in rural Kenya, through education, training and health care. W.O.R.K began its journey in 2006 after founder Mary-Jane Butler spent 10 years living and working in rural Western Kenya as a nurse and medical coordinator. During this time, she met many widows and orphans in desperate circumstances, without food or a home and was inspired to act. The Borgen Project spoke to Mary-Jane to understand more about the situation in rural Kenya and her work.
Why Widows and Orphans?
“Kenya is a complex country in many ways,” Mary-Jane explains. “HIV/AIDS has been a big source of death in past years. In rural areas, there is almost no employment, with most people living by subsistence farming. This resulted in men going to the towns, especially Nairobi, to look for work. They would contract HIV, come home and give it to their wives and maybe one or two children. Often both parents and the small babies would die leaving many young children relying on their grandparents for a home… hence so many widows and orphans. The treatment for HIV is reasonable now and the deaths are not so many at all in recent years. However, poverty and the need for land is an increasing problem.”
In 2021, there were 1.4 million people in Kenya with HIV and 22,000 AIDS-related deaths, however, 78% of Kenyans with HIV are now on antiretroviral treatment.
Additionally, many women in Kenya face obstacles due to their gender. “Kenya is still a patriarchal society, where society sees men and boys as more important, brighter and better able than women or girls. Abandoning a woman who has your child/children for another woman is also common, leaving many women with a child or more with no land, home or ability to earn a living. W.O.R.K. tries hard to educate and train girls and women so they are able to have a job or a skill and support their families. Women are the backbone of society here in many ways – but life is hard for most of them.”
According to UNICEF, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 93% of children in Kenya were in primary school (around aged 6-14) but only 53% of children were in secondary schools (aged 14-18). “The public schooling in Kenya is improving!” Mary-Jane shares. “Primary schooling is mandatory but it still costs £100 a year per child, even in a local day school – this is a lot if you have nothing! Secondary day schools are available and cheaper than boarding schools. Colleges and Universities are good and available but expensive – only the very bright can get help from the government.”
According to Mary-Jane, it costs £350 – £450 ($436 – $560) per year to sponsor one child in a secondary boarding school, while college costs around £1,000 a year. The organization has also provided schooling equipment and facilities to local schools. “Personally, I am most happy with the number of orphans, street kids and Special kids we have been able to educate and offer a chance of life to. It is wonderful to see the transformation of a young frightened child into a successful professional. No child is born to suffer many of the indignities many of these kids suffer.”
Theoretically, the 2010 Kenyan constitution protects health care in Kenya. “The health care system in Kenya is not too bad! There is the National Health Insurance Fund which everyone who has formal employment should contribute towards. Anyone else is able to join at £4 a month. The fund helps but in no way covers all eventualities and many cannot afford it. Health personnel are well-trained in Kenya and the health staff are knowledgeable and provide good care. Poverty is the main reason for poor health as people have no money and are unable to access good care. Corruption also causes problems and as so often, it is the poor who suffer most.”
In regards to health care, W.O.R.K. has supported local health care clinics, built a new maternity ward and provided training in first-aid and basic midwifery to a large group of local women. It has also given numerous water tanks, with one project, in particular, providing clean water to approximately 100 families in a village in Namboboto. “A water tank varies in cost according to size; it can cost anything from £250 – £700 ($312 – $873). A secure base is also necessary to ensure it is safe and secure, which is an extra £100 or more.”
The Eagle Association
A group of former students supported by W.O.R.K. has teamed up to form The Eagle Association. This group regularly visits the orphans, in order to make sure that they feel supported by people with similar experiences. “It is a wide-ranging group with various skills; some act as ‘parents’ and attend the school function in that capacity so the student is supported, whilst others visit and take necessities. It varies greatly but in its own way tries hard to offer a ‘family’ support and ensure the student does not feel isolated and alone.”
Recognition and Plans for the Future
Mary-Jane has been awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire – a significant award in the U.K.) for her work in Western Kenya. “I was awarded the MBE about four or five years ago! I felt embarrassed as W.O.R.K. is a big team of people – but it has helped the work we do as it gave the charity ‘street cred’! People seemed to trust it more and take it as a serious charity and we were able to emphasize that ‘every penny gets to Kenya’. This has helped enormously. We are hopeful that as time continues to move and our students are gaining good qualifications (academic, artisan, skill-based) that they will become more involved and take on many of the roles that we have been doing, in many ways becoming sustainable in its own right.”
Thanks to the tireless work of organizations like Widows and Orphans in Rural Kenya, it is possible for the most vulnerable to have a brighter future. With further reforms from the Kenyan government and vital international aid, affordable high-quality health care and education may one day be available to everyone in Kenya.
– Tasha B. Johnson