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Young volunteer supporting women in Kenya

This Thursday (8th March) is International Women’s Day and a young Winchester resident is speaking out about her work helping to improve the lives of girls and women in Kenya.

Harriet O’Connor is currently over 6500 miles away from home, working alongside young Kenyan volunteers on a project focused on empowering young women to become responsible and active citizens able to make informed decisions and develop their own community.

42% of Kenya’s population live below the poverty line, and the average life expectancy for women is just 66, 17 years less than in the UK. Whilst 80% of women are involved in smallholder farming, only 1% own land due to traditional practices tending to favour men, and gender based violence is widespread.

Harriet, 22, travelled to Kenya with international development organisation VSO as part of the UK government funded International Citizen Service (ICS) programme, which allows young people aged 18-25 to contribute to sustainable development projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Harriet said: “Lots of women and girls in Kenya don’t receive enough menstrual education because health services are so limited. Additionally, entrenched traditional attitudes continue to prevent people talking about such topics. This means that many girls do not have adequate access to sanitary products and don’t fully understand how to keep themselves clean and safe. Many girls therefore skip school during their periods and catch infections– which has a big knock on effect on their education and employment opportunities.

“We’ve been visiting lots of local schools to deliver menstrual education lessons and hand out sanitary towels, and they’re going really well. We can teach anywhere from 10 to 100 girls during a session, which can be a little overwhelming but really shows how necessary the sessions are. It’s fantastic to see the girls gaining more confidence and learning more about how to stay safe and empowered.”

Harriet and her teammates plan to raise awareness within their placement community of International Women’s Day, which this year will focus on gender equality.

Harriet said: “We’re going to hold an action day around gender based violence, involving the whole local community. We have organised a huge procession, sports, face painting and theatre. I’m really looking forward to raising awareness of this sensitive, yet hugely important, issue which needs to be addressed. It’s going to be a massive event for an amazing cause!”

When she returns to the UK, Harriet will use her new skills to carry out an ‘Action At Home’ project.

This is a key part of ICS, and means that communities in the UK directly benefit from the skills volunteers gain while working in developing countries.

ICS is funded by UK Aid, so young people don’t need cash, qualifications or work experience to take part, just the desire to make a difference to the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities. Before travelling to Kenya, Harriet raised over £1100 for VSO, which will enable communities in developing countries to continue to benefit from the work of future volunteers.

Felicity Morgan, Director of ICS, said: “It’s really inspiring to hear about the fantastic work Harriet is doing. We’re incredibly proud that UK Aid is supporting young Brits to bring about positive change in some of the world’s poorest communities. As an organisation working on the frontline against poverty VSO see how people across Britain play an important role in delivering UK aid; from the NHS and Army helping end the Ebola crisis, to the millions who donate, and the contribution we all make through taxes, together we are all making the world a fairer, safer place.”

To find out more about ICS or to apply, visit

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