In this special episode, we focus on the power of mentoring to develop and empower women throughout the world. We will hear from Dr. Damaris Matoke-Muhia, who is an entomologist and a leader in the fight against malaria and other vector control diseases. Dr. Matoke-Muhia is passionate about identifying and mitigating gaps women face culturally in implementing community-based solutions to reduce malaria and in going into vector control research. Her story illustrates how one woman’s courage to challenge a system has positively impacted the lives of women and children throughout Africa.
Brown: Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and today we have a very special episode that focuses on the power of mentoring to develop and empower women throughout the world. My guest today is Dr. Damaris Matoke-Muhia from Kenya.
Before we begin our conversation, I would like to give you some background information on Damaris. Damaris is a molecular biology scientist working on the control of vector-borne diseases. She holds a PhD in molecular medicine and a master’s in biotechnology. She is a principal research scientist at Kenya Medical Research Institute working on the control of vector-borne diseases.
She is also the director of capacity building, gender mainstreaming, and career progression for the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association. Damaris is passionate in mentoring young career scientists and advocates for the advancement of women scientists within her role at the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association.
Damaris has organized and convened a meeting of twenty women from twenty African countries to discuss, identify, and mitigate gaps women face culturally as they work in the vector control progressions. She is a leader in the fight against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Welcome, Damaris. I am so happy that you are here today.
Matoke-Muhia: Thanks a lot, I’m excited to be here and I’m looking forward to having a great conversation. I am Damaris Matoke-Muhia, a molecular biologist and a program manager at the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association, where I spearhead capacity building and gender mainstreaming. I am also very passionate on women in vector-control diseases, empowerment, and strengthening their role in the fight against vector-borne diseases.
Brown: I was so inspired by the Gates Foundation video that showcased your tireless work to fight malaria and mobilize and empower women in Africa in the fight against malaria. To all our listeners, we’ll put a link to that video so you can be sure to watch it. I was just moved to tears watching it.
Can you please give our listeners some background information on who you are and how you came to be a leader in the fight against vector-borne diseases?
Matoke-Muhia: I was born and raised in Kenya, a place where malaria is endemic. I was born in a village where I witnessed people suffering from malaria, including myself and my family members, and one of my brothers passed away due to this disease. Since that time, I felt that I needed to join the team that works against this. Because I felt that torture wasn’t something that you would like to see in my lifetime, or I don’t want to see that kind of suffering in my children’s or my children’s children.
I needed to be part of the solution. I needed to be part of the team that provides answers to this disease and be part of the elimination process. I was very active and good at sciences and mathematics. Therefore, I opted to go for sciences because I felt this is the part that could include me in providing solutions.
What I witnessed is that we had everyone in the community being affected by these diseases, but it was affecting mothers or women in the communities more because they were the caregivers. They were the people who provided solutions in a way, managing the children, not only children, but also managing the entire family and most of the entire community.
One thing is that when a child, or when a father, or when a someone in the family was sick from malaria, it would put a standstill to the ladies in the communities. They wouldn’t go out to do their normal routine. They would just be thinking about their children and even if going to work, they wouldn’t because then they must stay at home or be hospitalized. Because most malaria cases are inpatient, they’ll be in hospital with their children. Therefore, I felt that we need to do something to ensure that these women are also supported and that they are part of the solution as we fight against this disease.
Brown: Can you talk more about how you have engaged women to be part of the discussion in creating these community programs to fight malaria?
Matoke-Muhia: I engaged women in various ways. One way was looking at both professionals in the community and non-professionals, as we call them. For the professionals, we’ve been working together to identify the gaps whereby we bring women from various countries who are involved in the fight against this disease. These women are not just scientists, but even social people or people who are part of the pipeline. So, providing solutions for this, it can be an accountant, it can be an administrator, it can be a lab technician, it can be someone who sits in the decision making. So, the entire pipeline. Identifying those women and bringing them together to see how we can support or how we can be involved in providing solutions.
And my thinking and my entire goal is if we are making decisions about things that women must utilize or implement at community levels, then they need to be part of the decision-making process. A scenario I like to cite is that when you go to the community, you find more women at community levels telling you this is where the mosquitoes are breeding, we have had episodes of malaria for the last two weeks, we have our children who have been sick from this disease. But when you come to the decision-making tables at policy levels, there are less women.
You find fewer women at decision making, but at the community levels they’re 98% to 100% women. They’re the ones who are utilizing the tools that are made in the fight against malaria and other vector-borne diseases. Therefore, how can we turn the tables, not even just turning the tables, but have the implementers, the people who are utilizing these tools at lower levels, at community levels coming up to the decision-making tables, making decisions about the decisions that affect them. Decisions that they suffer from themselves, but also their children or their family members.
We brought together all the professional levels to identify what the challenges are. Why are we not at management levels? Why are we not the leaders? Why are we not the decision makers? Trying to identify those gaps. So those gaps have been identified, therefore trying to provide solutions towards those gaps among us.
The gaps that we’ve identified by bringing professionals together is one, they need to be supported to become the leaders that we want them to be. By training, by capacity building, even showcasing that they’re able to do it. Coming from an African country’s culture has not created opportunities that accommodate these women. Culture has not made it visible for women to go for those leadership positions. If the culture is not making it an automatic process, we need to create it. We need to make it an automatic process. We need to make sure that these women, as they are trained from lower levels, they’re also able to be given platforms where they can showcase their work, where they can showcase their abilities, and that those are there in institutions or at government where they can sit and comfortably execute the work that they’re well qualified to do.
At community levels, we are bringing together women. I’m someone who participates in field work. One of the assessments that we do is to identify where the problem is and solving it as far as the disease is concerned. I go to the communities and ask people that we have provided with the tools, are they sufficient? And if they are not sufficient, are you able to use them?
An example I would cite is an insecticide-treated bed net. Most of our communities, especially areas where malaria is endemic, don’t have structures that are comfortable in hanging the nets, and they do not have spaces where the net can be spread out comfortably. Most people sleep on mats, so there are no beds. If there are beds, there are no hooks to hang the bed net or there are more than one person in the bed. One of the things is that there’s one bed net per two people. But you find a household where children are sleeping four in a house. Yes, you have your children who are of age, but they sleep in another house. You have a boy and a girl, and you’ve given them one bed net. Only one of them is going to use it, so one of the children is left out and is not sleeping. Does this system work and is it going to help us move towards elimination?
Therefore, my role is to ensure that these community’s voice is heard, so we get to hear or know what they desire, identify those gaps, and involve them as we make those tools and implement the solutions.
Brown: I was just wondering if based on their recommendations that they said, we don’t have enough nets. Have you been able to get them more bed nets?
Matoke-Muhia: Bed nets are distributed using what we call mass campaigns, whereby the Ministry of Health is the one that distributes that. For me and for the research scientists, my goal is not to just provide them with more nets, but to be able to document those gaps that are there and speak to the ministries to see how we can mitigate this.
What we did on a small scale was to speak to the ministries and ask them, can we get more nets? Because we have the scenario where they have one net, but they have two children who are of different sexes who do not sleep in the same bed. On a small scale, they have supported me in ensuring that we try to pilot that and showcase success, but it’s on a small scale in only one county. We need to go to other counties, because the malaria endemic is in more than twenty-five counties in Kenya. That’s on a small scale, but we need to do it on a bigger scale and cover the entire country.
Brown: One of the other things you’ve been passionate about is recruiting more women as scientists into the vector control fields of research.
Can you talk about that shift? Earlier in your career, you were one of the few women who was working in vector-borne diseases, and now when I saw that clip, I saw your lab and I was so happy to see so many women working in your lab. How has mentoring been part of that process for creating that pathway for women to be successful scientists in vector control?
Matoke-Muhia: When I was employed, entomology is not a beauty subject for most women to go in. One of the challenges of going into the field is trying to chase after mosquitoes, trying to identify where they are breeding, and trying to come up with solutions. So, you find that most women will not go for it.
In my lab, I tried to identify how can I ensure that we have more women working with the young ones who are coming up. Because most of them will be like, if I did entomology, will I just be living in the field? Will I be chasing after mosquitoes every day? So, my duty was to showcase that if I can be successful, I need to support you, so let’s work together. I created a relationship whereby we work together in identifying how I can support you, how I can mentor you, and in a more informal way. We developed a strategy where I monitor weekly what the individual is doing and support them.
It is not to discourage them or to make entomology a tedious subject, but to show them if we did this, remember to see the greater picture, and supporting them in the work they’re doing. I’ve been able to work with many women in my lab and I’ve been very propulsive once they come.
I’m not neglecting the boy child. I ensure the boy child comes in, but remember they’re already hardened, and they find it easier to just do entomology. But the girl child feels like, I need to go to the field? I’m a mother, or maybe I’m going through this biological process; how do I survive in the field? I manage to encourage and ensure that there’s an environment that’s conducive for these ladies to work together in. There was formal supervision, but there was informal mentorship where we were checking on each other, linking them to potential people who can give them better advice, and showing them that they can be as successful as the male colleagues we’ve been working with.
Brown: Can you tell us more about the awards that you have started giving for women in vector control?
Matoke-Muhia: Yes. I would like to cite something before I even mention those awards. One of the things that we realized is that most women could not identify where other women work who have done entomology and who are successful. I asked myself, if these women cannot identify where other women who are very successful are, why don’t we show that women who have been doing entomology are successful? We created a grant known as Women in Vector Control Excellence Awards. We just did this last year and this year.
The idea was to send this call out for women to self-nominate or be nominated. We then go through a rigorous process where we showcase and just see potential. The excellence awards are not only for senior people, but the younger people at whatever level have also been successful. These awards are meant for early-career, mid-career, and senior-career. We award them not just with a certificate or a plaque, but we also give them money, and we monitor what they do with this money. We did it this last year and last year, and so far from last year’s cohort, it’s been great.
These women have gone back and reinvested. It’s very little money, but it tells them, we want you to reinvest back to vector control, and so they reinvest. Some of them have engaged seminars or meetings with other women working in vector control. Others have supported a female colleague who either was stuck in finishing their postgraduate studies, or also supported them with a few lab agents. Others have gone back and did projects that investigated what they can do to bring more women on board. That’s what we have managed to do. So, the success is yes, to increase visibility, but also it is to increase the pool of women who have been supported, who have activities that women are supporting so that we support the process of elimination in the continent.
Brown: I love how they use some of that money to keep it going and to support other women. Those are amazing awards. How did you find the courage to become such a strong voice for dismantling gender stereotypes? You are so inspiring, and your work is so inspiring, but it takes a lot of courage to be that person.
Matoke-Muhia: It is seeing people believe that I could do this, but more so in seeing a gap and wondering how I can tackle this gap. For me, it came naturally because I was struggling being a female entomologist with grants not coming my way easily. Because I’m a research scientist, I need to write proposals. My proposals were not good enough despite writing many of them. And this is caused due to issues with mentorship, but also trying to understand that this is a male-dominated field.
But I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that. So, I’m like, we need to change the story. We need to change the way we are doing things by ensuring that we have the entire force of the masses and that everyone is on board. Because honestly, if malaria affects females more in a way that’s not just the infections, but more in a way because they are the main caregivers back home, and they’re the ones that are at the forefront of fighting these diseases, then why are they not on board in making decisions? So, it’s just seeing those gaps and feeling that we need to change this.
Being in a platform where it’s not automatic for women to get a promotion, it’s not automatic for you to go higher and be a manager, you must really fight the system. You must fight the structures, and that’s the norm, it’s less obvious. But for men who are my equivalent, who have similar qualifications as me, it tends to be a seamless process. So, for me, I felt that how can I be the voice in a small way, just to show that it’s not appropriate.
It’s not right that women must fight. They must try to create space for themselves. That’s the main reason that drove me to that; getting to speak to people. Getting to show people that, how can we change this? Identifying people who are my support system, my colleagues at PAMCA, my colleagues at KEMRI, they added to that.
They believed in me, and I kept on with the conversation and telling them this must change. In 2018 when in Senegal for a malaria meeting, it’s called the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria meeting, and they were showcasing that we lack women in the control of vector-borne diseases. There are entomologists and there are women doing research, women who are supporting, and we see that in the field.
So, I ask, how can we change that story? I came by part of it by being troubled that things need to change. But also asking myself if we are saying the goal of elimination of malaria is 2030, then let’s change the script. Let’s bring this force that is missing, more women who are missing from making decisions. More women who are missing from designing tools that speak to this fight. More women who are missing in driving the process. So, I was troubled by that, and I decided to just keep on telling the story and ensuring that because I was seeing it differently in the field, but I couldn’t see that in the management or decision-making process.
Brown: Your voice has been so powerful in making those changes. I’m in awe of your commitment to that, your passion for that and all the women that you have uplifted along the way. In that video, I saw some of the women that you’ve mentored talk about the impact you have had on their whole life. What is your hope for these young women who participate in this mentoring program?
Matoke-Muhia: My hope is that these women are the future. I know that they’re the people who are going to enact what we call a paradigm shift. They’re the people who are going to create platforms to ensure that generations to come are not subjected to environments that are not favorable for women in the generations who are going to be born. I believe that they are not only going to be the solution for the moment, but they are going to be the solution for the future. They’re going to be the people who will be carrying that mantle of ensuring that girl who the system does not favor is on board whether they like it or not.
Once they take up the leadership, and once they become the senior people that we are thinking about, they will ensure that those processes are favorable to the culture. That they are favorable to the women, because the African culture that we have now has not done that and is not going to do that.
One of the things that we have seen is that there are issues of gender discrimination at work. There are issues of sexual harassment and bullying, so I believe they will be part of the people who will ensure those policies are there. Because we have policies which are on paper, but not in implementation.
When a girl is bullied at work or sexually harassed, there is nowhere to go. Even the senior women at work do not know how to handle it because there are no structures or systems. If I cried that I’ve been discriminated against or I have been harassed, I don’t know who to report to. So, I believe that these young women who are not only good scientists, but they’re also going to be good leaders who are going to help put structures that create spaces for women to safely work and environments that women can be comfortable in working against or working towards elimination of malaria and other vector-borne diseases.
Brown: That is a beautiful vision of what that can be like. We’re getting ready to wrap up here, but what inspires you and what keeps you going? You just have so much energy and you’re tireless in this. What keeps you going?
Matoke-Muhia: What keeps me going is that until I see malaria eliminated from the continent, I believe that we have what it takes to eliminate the disease from the continent, a child dies from malaria every one minute. I have been speaking with you for the last 40 minutes or so, and by the time we are done with this interview, 60 children would have died from this disease.
For me, there is the thought that I cannot sit and be comfortable until this question is turned and there are no children who die from the disease. There are no mothers suffering because their children have died from malaria. The community is free of this disease and other vector-borne diseases. If malaria is causing that havoc, then other vector-borne diseases are also bringing that trouble.
I believe that women need to be part of the solutions and women need to work with men as allies and ensure that disease is eliminated, controlled, or eradicated from the continent so that we can focus on other things.
The resources that go into the fight against malaria are enormous. It can be put into other things because the disease is preventable, the disease can be eliminated. We’ve seen success stories. Malaria was in the U.S. before, but it’s no longer there. What did they do differently? And I believe that it’s bringing all the forces and voices together to ensure that this disease is out of the continent.
Brown: That is sobering to think about. That’s such a high rate. What can we do to support women in vector control research?
Matoke-Muhia: We can do many things. But the most important thing is empowering and strengthening their role, and this comes with putting resources here. I don’t mean just money, but how can we partner now with people who have managed this disease? How can these women be linked with women who have worked and who have been successful so that they can borrow from their resilience, they can borrow from their success story to be able to implement the same back home.
How can we create a network of women who are supporting each other and working with men? Because one of the things that I’ve realized is that men feel threatened when we talk about more women empowerment. How can we work with men who are in our settings, who are in our continent, or in our institutions, to ensure that what we decide to achieve in the continent is done?
My belief is that we need to get more human resource support. Human resource support starts by training more women, training them, and giving that confidence. One of the things we’ve seen in the continent is that most of our women, apart from the culture being non conducive to the advancement of their careers, they tend to not have confidence in themselves and believe that they can occupy these spaces. We can do more by training, showcasing, identifying potential, and building it.
Also, continuing the communication or the discussion around that women can do it. If men can do it, then I can do it as a woman, because it’s not that we are weaker beings. It is the resources both in financing and human resource support. It is also networking with these women to ensure they have the confidence and know that the continent needs them. The continent appreciates what they’re doing, and the continent cannot do without them being on board.
Brown: That they are crucial to the solution of a malaria free Africa. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today and thank you for all that you and everyone at the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association is doing to provide mentoring opportunities for women in vector control research.
We at Menttium are so proud to partner with you in matching women with mentors because your work is truly changing the world. I’m inspired by your presence and all that your voice has done to create more equality, to change gender norms, and to create more women being part of the solution.
Matoke-Muhia: Thanks for that support. I believe more mentorship and continuous mentorship will bring the success that we decide to see. Thanks a lot, and I’m happy to be working with you.
Brown: It was so nice to meet you and I appreciate you taking the time.
You have inspired me from hearing your story, hearing about the hardship you went through in college to get your degree and that you are tireless in changing things. You’re making such a difference. I cannot thank you enough for being that woman who uplifts and helps everyone feel like they can do more in wherever they are.
Matoke-Muhia: I believe there is a lot more that we can do by working with people like you, with Menttium and others to be able to provide solutions that are needed. I’m happy to be hosting more and more women in my lab and working with them in whatever platforms to ensure that we get to the end of this fight.
Brown: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Menttium Matters podcast. We look forward to having you back next time.