Kenya: "Please follow your dream and chase it"

In the overcrowded Mathare slum area of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, MSF runs a 24-hour sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) care clinic called Lavender House. Barbara Salano Kerre is the sexual and gender-based violence mental health supervisor there, and shares her experience...

Lavender House has lavender painted interior walls

I've been working as a clinical officer for the last 10 years in the Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) recovery centre, offering medical and psychosocial care to the most vulnerable people in this society, those who have been faced with issues of sexual violence.

It is estimated that almost half of Kenyan women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is a global phenomenon happening all over, yet it is widely under-reported and many people do not seek care. But being in this position, with MSF, we’ve been able to reach a big number of survivors who face many challenges and attended to their medical needs and psychological care. Being part of this team is an honour and a privilege: I love giving, being of service to society.

I've also been part of the team that has gone to court to offer expert witness testimonials for survivors seeking justice – it has been an experience on its own and I thank MSF for giving me this opportunity to serve.

In 2018, after a team recommendation, I went to our SGBV clinic in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, for a detachment for three months supporting the team to attend to survivors of sexual violence. It was one of the best experiences in my work with MSF, for I was called upon to step up to more responsibilities.

Looking back, this was a chance to prepare for a leadership role and it has really helped me in my work as a leader.

So when an opportunity arose in Mathare I stood up to take it, as SGBV mental health supervisor.

My day-to-day work involves advising a dedicated team of about 26 staff. We have clinical officers, counsellors, psychologists, social workers and community health educators, and hygiene officers who are all dedicated to offering medical care to survivors of sexual violence.

Leadership means that you are in a position to influence a team positively to achieve their desired goals. I’ve been able to lead the team to achieve our goals.

As a leader, it’s a place of privilege, a position of power and if that power is not well used it may work against the service. Being a leader calls for so much. My team can freely reach out to me and I can help them through the challenges they face while giving medical care to survivors. There are times I am called on to make tough decisions, but as a leader you’ve got to do it.

I encourage women in leadership positions to hold the hands of upcoming young women and help them climb up the ladder. Wouldn’t it be nice that when you retire you have another woman stepping and following your footprints?

What can the women of today do to help the women of tomorrow? Let us use our voice to speak up! To speak up on issues affecting women, for example, issues of sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health, so that women of tomorrow don’t have to face the same struggles and challenges like our grandmothers and mothers did.

My part in MSF’s humanitarian medical care means a lot to me; I’ve come to learn that medical care is a right for everyone, yet some people are not able to access these services.

MSF has advanced the medical and mental healthcare offered to survivors of SGBV. Attending to the medical needs of survivors is satisfying, whether we meet the needs of one person in particular or many who need this service.

That I have been able to serve the most in need in society has not been on my own, it’s been thanks to all my good mentors and the support of my family.

I’m a mother of three beautiful children and I'm a wife. I've faced a number of challenges just like many other women – most importantly, striking the work-life balance.

As a woman, I say, please follow your dream and chase it. Yes, you might face challenges and obstacles along the way, but never give up.