Prioritizing women’s and girl’s health through Rotary and Peace Corps

By Katie Northcott, Rotary Global Grants Scholar and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

“Je ne sais pas quoi faire”. I don’t know what to do. Six words that can define any experience with an unintended pregnancy, especially for a teenager. In this case, I was standing in front of a 16-year-old Burkinabe girl who had participated in a youth sexual health education camp I had organised just a few weeks earlier. During the camp, she learned about sexual and reproductive health issues including contraception, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and the importance of planning for the future. During the session on pregnancy, the young woman realised that perhaps the symptoms she was experiencing were more than just general illness. A pregnancy test at the health clinic the following week confirmed her fears.

My Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, where this experience took place, guided my current career path and life focus. I wanted my work to ensure that other young people would not find themselves in similar situations. Initially motivated by the concept of economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa as a conduit to support women’s rights, I had pursued Economics, African Studies, and French during my undergraduate studies.

A research project studying women’s experiences starting their businesses took me to Senegal where I met the president of a micro-finance office providing income-generating activity training as well as contraceptive and reproductive health services. Here, I directly connected a woman’s and girl’s well-being and participation in the public and economic sphere to the ability to make choices about her own health. From then on, I knew I wanted to focus on sexual and reproductive health rights, which led me to apply to Peace Corps and serve as a Community Health Development volunteer in Burkina Faso.

Working in a rural setting in a country with some of the world’s worst health outcomes, particularly for maternal, neonatal and child health, is challenging. As a volunteer, you often expect to make ground-breaking changes in your host community within a two-and-a-half-year time span. Realistically, projects and their outcomes only reach a small community, and their effects may not be seen until after the end of one’s service.

However, the focus on local, context-specific solutions – working from grassroots community level rather than a top-down approach – became a cornerstone of my career goals. I decided to apply for a Master’s degree in Population and Development at the London School of Economics, focusing on sexual and reproductive health in low-resource settings in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa.

After much research, I applied for a Rotary Global Grants scholarship to help me pursue the graduate degree. I was awarded a scholarship focused in maternal and child health through District 7620 in the United States. Rotary’s alignment with Peace Corps’ own vision, to make a lasting impact on the world around us, made me feel proud to be a Global Grants scholar. Upon arriving in London, the Rotary community was warm and welcoming. While I have since left London, I still feel very much a part of the Rotary community.

Once I completed my degree, I began working for AmplifyChange, a multi-donor fund providing grants to civil society organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America who advocate for and promote better policy and action on neglected sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. As a member of the grants support team, I interact with grantees who are doing vitally important work all over the world.

Without first living in Burkina Faso with Peace Corps and working on the ground, my goal to continue supporting local efforts to advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights would not be realised. Without Rotary’s grant for my master’s degree, my pursuit of this goal would have been nearly impossible to achieve in such a short span of time. Now, I can contribute to the work of organisations around the world who envision universal access to the services and protections individuals need to fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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