Widow graduands
Simon Juma Odiyo leading widow graduands in a celebratory dance in Pap Kado village in 2021. © Rona Foundation.

By Rona Foundation – Kenya partner of Widows for Peace through Democracy

Roseline Orwa and Valentine Linette went in search of these uncelebrated and undocumented heroes and heroines who served their communities in the middle of a raging pandemic, despite the lockdowns, curfew, and fear of infection or death from the corona virus. In this blog, they share 2 heroic stories of change, their actions, strategies and impact in covid-19 times.

While the world begins to adjust with a strange disease that constantly changes it name (it is popularly reffered to as covid-19 in Siaya County) –  from Corona, to Delta and now Omicron, covid-19 has been made a common joke with its variant changing names. The pandemic in general has shown that local problems require local solutions, and therefore the importance of documenting those who made the most difference. These forms of selfless proximate leadership are rare but exist, and did so much to sustain and hold their communities together during the pandemic. Widows, male champions and other active citizens became a new face of social and human rights defenders in rural villages in Siaya. With dedication and selflessness, they offered solutions and support systems that was needed when the world closed down in 2020 and 2021.

Mildred Oloo, 46yrs, Widow Leader

Mildred became an active citizen who responded and reported gender violence cases to relevant authorities. She offered the psychosocial support and counseling services to new widows and school going girls – particularly those struggling with socio-economic and adolescent challenges during the long lockdown. Having been a peer mentor with Rona Foundation and micro-credit educator who monitored widow groups – village banks and managed group dynamics, she became the go-to person.

Widowed at the age of 30 with seven children under her care, five her own and two from a deceased brother, Mildred had her own share of burden. Before covid-19, she sold second hand clothes to provide for her family. She was forced to close her business due to market lockdown and government ban on second hand clothing. The rise in food prices and cost of upkeep from running a large family made it even harder to continue with her business and to provide for her family during the lockdown.

Even so, as a known widow leader, her phone kept ringing with cases of gender based violence – mostly intimate partner violence from younger widows. Her group had elderly widows who needed care and food – as family support thinned out due to the pandemic’s impact on jobs. Working family members lost jobs and could no longer send help. In spite of her personal challenges, Mildred conducted home visits and also visited widow groups whose leaders were meeting in small numbers – underground for their savings and loaning programs, as social gatherings were banned.

“Everyone was afraid. Even our area chief closed up his office. People had nowhere to report gender violence. I was also living in fear of death – of the unknown of this new disease. The widows were constantly calling me to ask for help. The girls in my village were misbehaving and getting pregnant – someone needed to act. I took some little action. I prayed every time I went out to help – it was difficult to simply nothing, as I enjoy doing community service”. – Mildred Oloo, Widow Leader.

Girls in Uhendo
School going girls in Uhendo village celebrate receiving donation of sanitary towels after a mentorship session at Mildred’s home in Uhendo in 2020. © Rona Foundation

“Two girls got pregnant, and another three reported claims of crude abortion in the nearby market”, says Mildred.
As a mother of three teenage girls, she got worried. Mildred began hosting girls mentorship sessions in her home. She started with eight girls – discussing with them life skills, abstinence, self-esteem, sexual reproductive health and rights etc. She became a mentor mother. The girls began to trust her. The numbers built up slowly. What began small grew to more than 60 girls during the lockdown. Community stakeholders and well-wishers began to offer support to the girls such dignitary packs like sanitary towels, panties etc. Siaya reported over 5000 teen pregnancies, out of the six gulf villages in South Sakwa, Uhendo reported the least number. Mildred’s actions ensured a safe return to school and saved the future of many girls in her village, and support to widows.

Simon Juma Odiyo (Sally), 42yrs, Male Champion

Sally, a father of seven, married to one wife is a male champion in Pap Kado village. He coordinates 3 widow groups with more than 75 members. Having been raised by a widow mother, his passion to defend widow rights – springs from personal challenges – raised as an orphan and own observations as a village elder. He saw the suffering and disinheritance of his own mother, and wanted to be her protector. He was young – and carried this vision to helping other vulnerable women – like he would protect his own mother.

He explained to us, that in rural Siaya, men hold power and authority, and use them for the good or bad – as they desire – or culturally right. Protected by a husband, a married woman has more respect and access to leadership and socio–economic opportunities. This makes women with dead husbands more vulnerable. Sadly, patriarchy, cultural norms and social stigma makes it even harder for men to defend and protect women rights – other than their wives. He chose to use his power for the good of his community.

To find married men, like Sally who publicly speak out and defend widow rights as male champions is rare. Men like him are frowned upon and considered socially awkward by their male peers. They are largely seen as weak and destroyers of widow headed households. Yet they play a big role in the rural community in championing and advancing women rights.

“Men hold so much power in our society and also have the power to bring change. I help out whenever I can. I simply ignore the stigma. We are part of the solution to end violence and discrimination against widows” – Sally, Male Champion.

Before covid-19, Sally was a successful businessman running his restaurant in Pap Kado village. He had to close down due to the government covid19 restrictions. Having no income, jobless, the patriarchy and inhibitive social norms, he was still receiving needs from widows. Sally was at the forefront to help them in the pandemic. He sourced for help from local nonprofits, leaders and well-wishers. He distributed food packs with maize, cooking oil, sugar etc. to over 40 elderly widows in Pap Kado during the lockdown.

“When the market closed, and widows had no income, I coordinated and also helped the 3 groups conduct private meetings to share their shares in their self- managed village banks”, says Sally.
He took interest to be even more involved, Sally organized a small care working group comprising of young widows and supportive youth to offer home based care to elderly widows he supported. This care group cleaned widow houses, swept compounds and general hygiene in those selected widow homes.

Break the Bias

Let’s break the bias, this International Women’s Day, by celebrating the proximate grass root leaders, like Mildred and Sally – those who otherwise will never be celebrated or documented.
Their role in this pandemic made the greatest difference to their communities. Grass root change makers like them, can be found anywhere in low income communities. They are the ones who are holding their community together, with little to no resources. They work for the common good of the society. Going forward, the world should learn to empower and offer them support.

Read the full report for the Emergent Agency – documenting widow stories in the time of covid-19.


Roseline OrwaRoseline Orwa, widow champion, is founder and director of the Rona Foundation, and a Life Long Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics.
Twitter: @RoselineOrwa