Could Siddharth Chatterjee be busier? Probably not. He has been the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya since August 2016. As the United Nations Resident Coordinator, he coordinates the work of 27 UN agencies, all whose common agenda under the principle of “delivering as one” is to support Kenya’s progress towards milestones including Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Before assuming this role, Mr Chatterjee was the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya, where he was instrumental in raising the visibility around the main gender challenges of maternal mortality, child marriage, FGM and other forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls.

Sid, as he is popularly known, has previously worked in international humanitarian and disaster response settings, including as Chief Diplomat & Head of Strategic Partnerships, International Relations of the International Federation of the Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world’s largest humanitarian & development network.  As part of his career in peace-keeping and disaster relief, he has spent time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, South Sudan, Indonesia, Sudan (Darfur), Somalia, Denmark and Switzerland.

In South Sudan, he was hailed for successfully negotiating the release and demobilisation of over 3500 child soldiers from the rebel SPLA army, the largest ever demobilization of child soldiers during an ongoing conflict.

Sid, who holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, started his working career as a soldier in the Indian Army Special Forces, where he was decorated for gallantry by the President of India.

He is a regular contributor to international media such as Reuters and Huffington Post, where he writes on humanitarian and social issues.  His op-eds have featured in CNN, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Forbes, the Global Observatory and other leading Kenyan and Indian media.

Married with one son, Sid is passionate about keeping fit and participates in many local marathon events.  His other pastimes include English literature and poetry, parachuting and scuba diving.

Dr Diana Wangari: Why this passion about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Siddharth Chatterjee: I would say my passion for gender advocacy was cemented by my experiences in the Indian Army and at a personal level. My own grandmother was married at the age of 11 and had 15 children, 9 of whom survived.  My early years in conflict settings also brought home the reality that women and children are worst effected during wars and natural disasters. While serving in the army as a young officer, I was horrified to find out that a soldier from my unit had raped a young girl.

I remember the sheer fear and trauma that girl went through, and the helplessness of her family.

It was a life changing moment for me. While the punishment that followed was swift and uncompromising, it was at that moment that I swore to fight all forms of misogyny, discrimination and violence.

In many of the countries I worked in, disease outbreaks, lack of water and sanitation were the order of the day. Reproductive health services, including midwifery outreach services, antenatal care, management of prenatal complications and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS were not readily available in conflict regions. These problems had particularly harsh consequences among women and children.

The years I spent in fragile environments will always remain a poignant reminder of the disparate harm that women are predisposed to whenever one form or other of humanitarian crisis arises.  Some were victims of rape and torture, others were widowed at young ages, their husbands murdered or kidnapped.

The years I spent in fragile environments will always remain a poignant reminder of the disparate harm that women are predisposed to whenever one form or other of humanitarian crisis arises.

Regrettably, even in peace time, many societies still exhibit levels of patriarchy and misogyny that are simply appalling.  The psychosocial status of the women who survived such atrocities are issues that continued to preoccupy me. When I joined the UN in Kenya in early 2014, the need to advocate against all forms of discrimination against women was already a personal mission for me.

Dr Diana Wangari: Your first impressions of Kenya?

Siddharth Chatterjee: Kenya’s reputation as a beacon of hope and regional economic hub was, of course, a good break for me, away from the war and conflicts of my earlier duty stations.  To that extent, it was a welcome change.

It was also a chance for me to continue with my personal mission of championing the causes and elimination of gender-based violence as well as FGM and child marriage, which is still an egregious practice in some parts of Kenya.

Kenya’s prevalence of violence against women and girls is unacceptably high, with one in every four women having experienced physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.  The biggest problem in Kenya like many others, is the conspiracy of silence around gender-based violence.

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 In Kenya, gender inequalities are revealed in various ways.  Too many Kenyan women have no control over their own fertility.  They cannot decide the number and timing of their children.   A lot of the unpaid work within families falls on the shoulders of women, therefore, they are left as economic dependants.  Many girls are uneducated, and those who go to school rarely proceed beyond primary level.  In addition, men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority.

Yet it is clear that Africa’s economic take-off will not happen if we do not invest in young people, especially adolescent girls.  How to work with other stakeholders towards making Kenya lead the way towards gender equality was my challenge when I took office in UNFPA and now as the UN Resident Coordinator and the issues still need to be faced today.

Dr Diana Wangari: Work with the first lady

Siddharth Chatterjee: I must say I was very fortunate to begin my term at UNFPA almost at the same time that Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta also came in as First Lady.  Her personal interest in the plight of women, especially in regard to HIV and maternal mortality, dovetailed perfectly with the global mission of the UN family in Kenya.

Her leadership and personal involvement in the Beyond Zero campaign meant that the issues gained high level international and local visibility.  It was unprecedented to see a First Lady so passionate about the rights of women and girls and who participated in the London Marathon as well as her own initiative of the Half Marathon to advance the casuse.

As a whole, the government has recognised the central role of maternal health, leading to the programme of free delivery services in public health facilities.  Within the first three years of that programme, deliveries under the care of health workers increased from 44 percent to 61 percent.

The government support was also crucial for us at the UN as it was a time when we came up with a project to enlist the support of the private sector to create new and more effective products, services and technologies towards maternal health, especially in remote counties.  For instance, just six out of the 47 counties in Kenya carry close to 50 percent of the maternal mortality burden in Kenya.

We were supported by the government to set up a major public-private initiative now going on in those six high-burden counties.  Today, the Beyond Zero Campaign has delivered mobile clinics to all 47 counties in Kenya. I also commend Philips, Safaricom, Merck GSK, Huawei and Kenya Health Care Federation who joined the initiative.

The campaign has been instrumental in raising the consciousness of the entire nation regarding the plight of many often underserved women and girls in desperate need of care.  It was only fitting that Her Excellency the First Lady was voted as the 2014 UN Person of the Year in Kenya.

Dr Diana Wangari: Why the particular focus on North Eastern Kenya?

Siddharth Chatterjee: Due to various historical, climatic, cultural and logistical challenges, the counties in Northern Kenya have the highest health and economic challenges in Kenya.

For instance, Mandera, Marsabit, Migori, Wajir, Isiolo and Lamu have a disproportionately heavier burden of reproductive, maternal and child health burden. It is with this in mind that the government and various partners have come together under what is called the RMNCAH 6-County Initiative to address critical bottlenecks in the health systems in North Eastern Kenya.

Under the stewardship of the National Government and respective County Governments the initiative has mobilized a multitude of partners across sectors to go there where not many went before and to collectively and holistically help increasing demand for and access to affordable quality RMNCAH care.

The Private Sector Health Partnership Kenya, which was launched in September 2015 at the global launch of the UN Secretary General’s Strategy for Every Woman, Child and Adolescent Health, is a clear demonstration of how the initiative has mobilized less traditional players in the development sphere.

By engaging a wide range of partners from across sectors there is great potential to develop new models that offer the best of both public and private sector, with the potential for scaling-up the delivery of healthcare for vulnerable and poor populations in low-resource settings. It also provides an opportunity to ensure long-term engagement of partners, and sustainability and scalability of new models, through shared value creation.

We are confident that there will be collateral gains, not just in health, but in sectors such as security, because the feelings of exclusion in these areas have created fertile ground for youth extremism.

Dr Diana Wangari: Highest Moment

Siddharth Chatterjee: In terms of my personal mission, what has always symbolised success for me was the visit to Mandera by Her Excellency the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.  That visit was not only the first time the County hosted a President’s spouse, but it also underlined the recognition of the need to address gender inequalities in all its manifestations.

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The North Eastern region is generally the region with highest rates of female illiteracy, early marriages, FGM and maternal mortality.  It is a region where most development partners had only token presence, and the private sector involvement in health is non-existent.

In August 2014, Governors from the 15 counties where 98 percent of Kenya’s maternal deaths occur signed a communiqué to address the problem. This was followed by a commitment by parliamentarians from these counties in November to support the communiqué.  In addition, religious leaders committed to lend their moral authority, social and religious influence and resources to the cause.

The fact that maternal mortality rates are going down and counties are now budgeting for reproductive health matters in these regions has been a source of personal satisfaction for me.

Dr Diana Wangari: Word for new governors

Siddharth Chatterjee: At the UN system in Kenya, we will continue to work with the Nairobi county government especially towards achieving sustainable urban development and the Sustainable Development Goals.  It is known that more than half the population now lives in urban areas. However, it is in such areas where the problem of inequality is most visible.  Too many urban residents grapple with extreme poverty, exclusion, vulnerability and marginalization.

Line any African countries, urban settlement patterns in Kenya are changing as slums and informal settlements are emerging along the peripheries of cities. The majority of people who live in these slums have no proper sanitation, clean running water, housing, proper collection and disposal of waste, among other urban amenities. As a result, they are exposed to all kinds of diseases and sometimes even death.

“The fact that maternal mortality rates are going down and counties are now budgeting for reproductive health matters in these regions has been a source of personal satisfaction for me.”

An issue that is particularly close to my heart is the place of youth.  Unemployment rates among the youth in Kenya are the highest in this region, and the country must create one million jobs annually to accommodate those joining the labour market.

County governments must do all to prepare the youth to participate in the economy if the country is to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend.

Investments in health, education and economic policies must then be underpinned by good governance, the exercise of public authority which entails adherence to the rule of law and enhancement of human rights applied universally.

By ensuring healthy, educated, productive populations, do we have any chance at all of making the Kenyan dream of a prosperous middle to high income country a reality in our lifetimes, Achieve Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr. Diana Wangari is a medical doctor turned-health Journalist from Nairobi with a soft spot for dogs. Follow her on Twitter @diana1wangari.