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Kenya — Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, has been named this year’s UN in Kenya Person of the Year, in honour of her efforts to improve maternal and child health in the country through her ‘Beyond Zero’ campaign. 

The only First Lady ever to be awarded a UN Person of the Year Award, she also made history as the first ever First Lady to run a marathon for a worthy cause.

The prestigious UN award was bestowed on the First Lady during United Nations Day celebrations in Kenya on October 24. Wearing colourful Maasai jewellery on her head and neck and f lanked by her three children, she dedicated the award to fellow Kenyans who have helped raise funds for her cause.

“Ending preventable maternal and newborn deaths in our country is not a choice – it is a necessity,” she said. “For too long, the prospect of childbirth in Kenya for thousands of women has been tantamount to a death sentence. This is not acceptable. It must stop.”

Contestants for the UN Person of the Year Award are nominated by the various UN agencies for exemplary work in community service. Mrs. Kenyatta was nominated, along with several other deserving candidates, by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA. The UN agencies then cast their vote for the UN Person of the Year.

Despite her tendency to avoid being in the limelight, Mrs. Kenyatta has used her high profile position to positive advantage for Kenya’s women and children. By launching the Beyond Zero Campaign, she brought national and international attention to the dire plight of Kenya’s women and children and with this initiative, the lives of thousands of women and children are likely to be saved.

The Beyond Zero Campaign was launched to help address Kenya’s challenges in meeting MDGs 4, 5 and 6 on infant and maternal mortality, and reduction of HIV transmission and AIDs-related deaths.

At the launch of the campaign, the First Lady announced that her ultimate goal was to ensure that all 47 counties in Kenya would receive a mobile clinic to ensure that henceforth, no women or children would die during childbirth.

“To date, we have delivered seven fully kitted mobile clinics to Taita Taveta, Narok, Isiolo, Homa Bay, Wajir, Baringo and Samburu counties,” she said. “These counties have some of the highest maternal and newborn mortality rates in the country.”

The mobile clinics deliver essential health services such as vaccinations, antenatal care, HIV testing and treatment, treatment of sick children and parents, and strengthening emergency services. Through the Beyond Zero Campaign, the First Lady has already raised funds to purchase more fully kitted mobile clinics.

The First Lady of Kenya, Mrs. Margaret Kenyatta (second left) with her UN in Kenya Person of the Year 2014 award. This was presented by (from left) the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ambassador Amina Mohammed, UN Resident Coordinator, Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas and UNFPA Representative in Kenya, Mr. Siddharth Chatterjee. Photo: UNFPA Kenya / Njoki Karuoya

According to Ministry of Health statistics, maternal deaths account for about 15 per cent of all deaths of women aged between 15-49 years. This translates to between 6000 to 8000 pregnant women dying every year, or 21 maternal deaths a day.

At the onset of the Beyond Zero Campaign, 8000 women died every year from preventable pregnancy-related complications, largely for lack of skilled birth attendance, while 108,000 children died before age five every year from communicable diseases.

Since the onset of the campaign, hospital records show a significant increase in the uptake of women delivering in hospitals with skilled birth attendance (from 46 per cent to 66 per cent).

The Beyond Zero initiative has accelerated the Government’s momentum in achieving MDGs 4 & 5 by 2015. It has also received endorsement by and the commitment of all 47 Governors of Kenya, particularly from the 15 counties with the highest burden of maternal deaths, which contribute 98.7 per cent of the total maternal mortality rate in the country. At a high-level meeting in Nairobi in August 2014, the 15 governors signed a communiqué declaring their commitment to reduce the rate of maternal deaths drastically in their respective counties.

After the award ceremony, UNFPA hosted a high-level VIP luncheon in honour of the First Lady. The guests included Cabinet Secretaries, Ambassadors, diplomats, Heads of UN agencies and CEOs. The First Lady was presented with a framed Communique signed by the 15 Governors in memory of the commitment made at the Governors’ Consultative Meeting in August. The presentation was made by UN Resident Coordinator Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, UNFPA Representative Mr. Siddharth Chatterjee, and Director of Medical Services Dr. Nicholas Muraguri, who was representing the Cabinet Secretary of Health.

“We are very proud of your achievement and we salute you,” said Mr. Chatterjee. “Through the Beyond Zero Campaign, the focus is increasingly being placed on women and girls, particularly the cultural and traditional practices that are harmful to their health and wellbeing. We are beginning to see a shift in attitudes towards women and girls, where their sexual and reproductive health and rights are increasingly being taken into consideration. This is why we must sustain and accelerate the momentum if we are to realize tangible results that will be of benefit to women, girls and families in general.”

Mrs. Kenyatta’s target is to raise Sh600 million for the campaign by March 8 next year. Her clarion call is that of CARMMA, the Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa: No Woman Should Die Whilst Giving Life.

- Njoki Karuoya