A heart for those in need

Lilian Marwa has dedicated her life to empowering women and girls of the Kisii area of West Kenya.

From a young age, Lilian Marwa had deep compassion for the homeless, the sick, and the poor, especially women and children.

“What we have decided to do is really empower our girls, because that’s the only thing you
can give them to be able to stand up for themselves, because we will not be there all the time.”

Even as a little girl, Lilian’s compassion for others shaped her everyday life. School friends who had no lunch would end up with a meal after Lilian headed home to ask her mother to make an extra lunch. In high school, Lilian spent her pocket money on food to feed a group of children who lived on the street. She’d prepare the meals at home and serve them at her church, until she was asked to stop due to concerns that the children might steal from the church. At college, Lilian was the one that her friends turned to when they needed a listening ear, when they needed help and when times were tough. It’s not surprising that Lilian went on to a career in social work.

Her passion lies in working within a community, right where the needs are. Lilian says, “I mean, I just love just going. I will knock onto your house – even though I don’t know you – and say hello. And ask you how you are. That’s what I did in the community during my free time.”

The story of Lilian’s journey, from the early days of knocking on doors to founding Akina Ties Haven and running the Heart4Change program is proof that if she sees a need, Lilian will take action. She will take in the unwanted, love the unloved, feed the hungry, and speak up for those without a voice.

Providing access to education

It was by knocking on doors and meeting people in their homes that Lilian discovered there were many children in her community who weren’t attending school, simply because their parents couldn’t afford it. With the help of her friend Mary Summerscales, who had established a baby orphanage in the area, Lilian set up a program to cover the costs of school fees for these children. Lilian says, “I felt so happy that the kids in the community would also receive an education and school was such a blessing to them.”

Bringing free health care to the community

The next great need that Lilian tackled was to give a lifeline to those ill with HIV/AIDS, and who desperately needed a way to make money. Women were provided with microfinance to help them start small businesses that were easy to manage while ill. By making a living, they could then access the health care and treatments they needed, and gain some independence.

While setting up the small business program, it became clear to Lilian just how difficult it was for sick people to access medical help – because the nearest dispensary was six kilometres away, a long distance to walk especially if you were ill and weak. So Lilian brought free medical services to the community. As word spread, another desperate need came to her attention. There were children, born with disabilities, HIV and severe disorders such as sickle cell anaemia, who had been abandoned by their parents and left to die alone. These children were victims of enormous stigma and misinformation, as well as abject poverty that left their parents unable to care for them or pay for the medical treatment they needed.

Creating Akina Ties Haven

Of course Lilian immediately came to their help. She was able to place them in a children’s home, to which she provided the funds needed to cover the expensive health care and treatments the children needed. But tragically, the money didn’t go towards the children. Lilian discovered that their health needs were being unmet unmet when during a visit, she realised one of the little girls had a gangrenous leg. Thankfully, she was treated in time and her leg was saved. With the assistance of her friend Mary, Lilian founded Akina Ties Haven as a safe refuge for the children. And right when she needed it most, Grandma and Grandpa (Kate and Noel) Doyle came into Lilian’s life and donated the funds needed to build a permanent safe home – just as they did for Rafiki Mwema. It wasn’t initially going to be a large home, but three children quickly turned into five children, and today, Akina Ties Haven cares for 31 children.

Freeing women and girls from violence, discrimination and poverty

You’d think by now Lilian would be too busy to take on anything else but no! When she sees a need, she responds. To empower women and girls, Lilian set up a community program, Heart4Change. Through mentorship, advocacy, and civic education, Lilian aims to help the most vulnerable in the community. When it comes to working with girls,Heart4Change and Akina Ties tackle everything from the cultural stigma associated with girls who have been raped, ending female genital mutilation, preventing teen marriages, providing sanitary products so that girls can stay at school, building rainwater tanks at schools to improve hygiene and ending teenage pregnancy. The results of the program are fantastic and saw a 50 per cent increase in girls’ school attendance within three years.

Gaining economic independence

Recently, Lilian has been providing advice to a small group of women who pooled their money to start a small business together. The women owned a block of land along a busy road, and Lilian suggested that they start a carwash business on the land. A carwash needs only a small amount of funds to start up and can pay quite well in comparison to many other small businesses. Lilian assisted them to apply for their permits and get the business started. All they need now is a vacuum to be able to provide a full detailing service.

When the road was closed for an upgrade, the women thought it was all over – but Lilian suggested that they pivot and start selling food and drinks to the road workers until the road is opened again. It’s been hugely inspiring to see their efforts succeed, and there’s no reason that this model can’t take off with other groups of women in the community. Everywhere she goes, Lilian seeks out opportunities to make a difference. She’s the living embodiment of Akina Ties’ tagline, Transforming Lives, Changing Destinies.

You always need a team

Lilian’s team of supporters is behind her all the way, providing her with the encouragement, advice and practical help she needs to keep going when the going gets tough. Despite the life-changing impacts that Lilian has brought to so many lives, she would have loved to have received more support and understanding from her mother, sisters and friends. She hopes that those she loves dearly will one day be her greatest champions, but she’s learned to accept that we all see things differently. And she’s encouraged by the support of many others who have become her wider family. These include her Australian friends and Akina Ties co-founders Mary and Mary’s sister Jenny, generous Grandma Doyle and Sarah Rosborg.

On this International Women’s Day, we want to recognise the efforts of Lilian and her support team, who are united in their determination to help create a better world for some of the most vulnerable people in Kenya. They have deeply impacted the lives of countless women and girls in so many different ways. It’s truly inspiring to see what women can achieve when they join forces to get things done.

Related tag: kenya child sponsorship

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