Josephine Awor doesn't need statistics to know Uganda struggles to provide adequate health care to expectant mothers and babies. As a nurse who has worked with vulnerable populations in areas affected by conflict in South Sudan, she's seen firsthand what happens when mothers are forced to deliver and care for newborns without medical assistance.
Still, the numbers don't lie.
According to the World Bank, 310 women die in Uganda for every 100,000 live births, compared with just 21 in the United States and 12 in the United Kingdom. Infants fare even worse. In Uganda, 45 out of 1,000 infants never reach the age of one, compared with six in the U.S. and just four in the U.K.
Kenya and Tanzania's infant and maternal mortality rates are as disturbing as those found in neighboring Uganda. Add in the HIV/AIDS crisis, poverty, and inadequate -- or nonexistent -- clinics and it's clear that programs like these are needed more than ever in East Africa.
Improving maternal health is one of the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals, which seeks to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters and achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015. To address this challenge, The Rotary Foundation and Aga Khan University (AKU) are working together to provide nursing professionals, like Awor, the skills and education they need to improve the lives of mothers and their children in East Africa.
"I need to be empowered to serve the poor and contribute to the government's efforts," says Awor.
She is one of 24 students who received Rotary scholarships to advance their nursing education at one of AKU's three East Africa campuses: Nairobi, Kenya; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Kampala, Uganda. In February, the first class of students in the scholarship program graduated with either a Registered Nurse or Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.
Through a packaged grant, Rotary provided financial support -- about $14,000 per student -- to cover tuition, books, and room and board, among other things. To be eligible for the program, applicants had to live where AKU's East African campuses are located, and their career goals had to focus on improving child and maternal health issues -- an area of focus for Rotary.
During the two-year nursing program the students worked, participated in community outreach activities, and received mentoring from Rotary leaders in their community. Yet despite their hectic schedules, many of the nurses graduated at the top of their classes. Awor beat out students on all three campuses to graduate with the highest honors in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.
Sam Farouk Mukasa-Kajubi, an AKU Rotary coordinator, says mentoring was a key component of the program, which sought to instill confidence and improve communication skills in the students as well as educate them.
"It was about turning the nursing students into professionals," he adds.
Part of his role as an area coordinator was to work with local Rotary clubs to identify community leaders who could mentor the students. Mentors not only encouraged students to perform well in school, they also taught them financial management and personal safety. The mentor program also introduced the students to the values and humanitarian goals of Rotary.
"The students are now on committees in their hospitals. They are carrying out programs to teach health care to men and women in their communities. And they are taking part in outreach programs," says Mukasa-Kajubi, a member of the Rotary Club of Kololo-Kampala in Uganda.
Because the program met just two days a week, the students -- many with families and careers -- were able to return to their jobs and community each week and put their knowledge to practical use.
"The experience has made me realize that we need to be mindful of those who may not be able to take care of themselves," says Awor. "There is always someone out there who is willing and compassionate to help them."