Anne Kihara: Passionate about women health and rights
By GARDY CHACHA |
2 months ago
The beginning was stormy but she overcame her troubles.
The year was 1985. Anne–Beatrice Kihara, walked the hallowed halls of medical school.
“I was seemingly cut out for sciences. We used to have straight cut career paths if you loved sciences? You studied either engineering or medicine.
“My father and grandfather influenced my choice to study medicine. Dad was a public health officer of many years. A few times, he took me along for inspection visits in the city.
“My grandfather used to initiate young boys during the long school vacations. They both stimulated me into taking a medical pathway,” she says.
Then, pregnancy happened. “I got pregnant in my first year,” she says.
She could have panicked and sought an abortion. In fact, it was suggested to her “by numerous people,” she says. “Everyone told me, ‘You are in medical school; you know what to do.’”
She chose to keep her “precious” baby. Her parents and siblings – especially her twin brother – were supportive.
Of course pursuit of a career and the pregnancy conflicted. She had to repeat the academic year at medical school.
The pregnancy, she says, was a game changer in the trajectory of her life and where she aspired to serve. “It showed me a path: as a young mother, a youth, a student, it woke me up to the challenges girls and women face juggling motherhood and a career,” she says.
She decided that she would not only finish medical school; she would enroll for a master’s degree in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
In 1999, she graduated with a master’s degree.
Her latest accomplishment is being elected to head the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Figo).
She has also received recognition for global advocacy in women’s health.
“This is a big deal: she has risen to the pinnacle of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the world.
“She is also an advocate, for sexual and reproductive health, and has been a voice for women over the decades.
“She has taught and trained up-and-coming obstetrician and gynaecologists. This is momentous for Kenya and Africa.
“Dr Kihara is a colossus. We, her Kenyan colleagues, are so proud of this achievement,” says Dr Kireki Omanwa, a friend and the current President of Kenya Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society (Kogs).
To put it into perspective, Kihara is the first African woman to be president elect of Figo and the youngest president in the organisation since 1954.
This writer had previously interviewed Kihara in 2013. Back then, she was running a private practice along Ngong Road.
“Do you remember my face?” I asked.
“No,” she says. “I have met so many people and it’s been several years since then.”
I remember a doctor incredibly passionate about women’s health and rights. She could go on and on talking about it.
“I am very strong on women’s advocacy: locally and internationally. But now I have a global platform which I hope to use to enhance education, capacity building research and advocacy; more so with a focus on adolescents and youth,” she says.
The 2013 Dr Kihara is still the same today: passionate as ever about women and their health.
That passion partially explains how she has made it to the pinnacle of obstetrics and gynaecology in the globe.
The full story, however, began to take shape somewhere around 2003 while running a private practice in Kikuyu township. She loved clinical care. However, she felt that something was missing: leadership and impact.
Kihara had been a member of Kogs from her postgraduate days and joined Kogs’ Council as the Vice President in 2012. She was elected president in 2013 and served until 2017.
She decided to reduce private practice and concentrate on leadership. She engaged in many technical working groups, participated in various health Bills; including the Beyond Zero Initiative.
At the regional congress, she met the leadership of African Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “They were all men,” she says.
She challenged them to include women in leadership. “How do you make decisions for women’s health and you are all men?” she asked.
She was elected into the council of the African Federation and in 2020, she was elected president for the continental body for the next three years.
In the past year, Figo asked for nominations to elect the next Figo trustees and council members.
Dr Kihara was nominated by Kogs (Kenyan society) and the European society. She had two competitors: An Ethiopian and a Lebanese – The latter was already sitting in the Council as the vice president of Figo.
“I knew the challenge was enormous and felt that my Lebanese colleague was assured of becoming president.”
However, she had local support. From colleagues to her students at University of Nairobi, many urged her to stay the course. The global support from over 130 countries was encouraging.
On 28 October 2021, the member societies voted and she emerged the winner. “When I received the news on the voting screen, the first thing I did was pray and ask God for guidance.”
Kihara will remain president-elect for two years then assume presidency from 2023 to 2025.
It has been an epic journey filled with storms and victories. Her stepwise rise to be Figo president speaks to her determination to move towards her targets.
“My competitive spirit was born from my childhood with a twin brother and two other boys, before my sisters came along.
“I felt compelled to be the best I could ever be. Mom instilled the social norms and responsibilities as a girl but sometimes I challenged, ‘Why should I be the one doing the cooking and cleaning my brothers can do the same?’ I would say.”
Kihara grew up in Nairobi where she attended Lavington Primary school and then Westlands Primary School. She proceeded to Limuru Girls School where she stayed from Form 1 to Form 6: passing with flying colours to join medical school.
Today, other than her role in leadership, she is a senior lecturer, teaching and conducting research in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
She also provides clinical care at Kenyatta National Hospital and at a few private facilities. “I am also a proud mother and aunty,” she says.
Her advice to parents of teenagers is to foster strong bonds of friendship with them.
“Understand that they are formulating their own mind set. Communicate with them: arm them with correct knowledge and life skills.
“Take them to see a gynaecologist who can talk to them. Even the bible says my people perish because they lack knowledge. Discussions relating to reproductive health should no longer be taboo.
“More importantly, guidance; parenting; role modelling, can make the difference in altering some of those dynamics today,” she says.
According to Kihara, society cannot continue burying its head in the sand; especially in the information technology age.
“We must create a platform to disseminate truthful knowledge and reintegrate young girls back to education.
“We have to ask ourselves, what quality of Kenyans do we want for tomorrow? Ideally, we want children who have good physical and mental health.
“This can only happen when we give young people knowledge that helps them make critical choices relating to sexuality and health.
“Believe me, when I see girls with unplanned pregnancies – some as a result of rape or socioeconomic factors – I understand what they are grappling with,” she says.
Her work as Figo president will be to push for the practice of obstetrics and gynaecology to give more focus on adolescents and youth health.
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