When I visited Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, for the first time in July 2018, I saw women facing enormous challenges when seeking higher education, business opportunities and healthcare. The situation was bleak. For every 10 refugee boys in primary school, less than eight girls were in school. ​When opening a business, refugee women found it difficult to obtain government permits. They needed a travel permit to leave the camp. To access capital, many borrowed money from friends and family. The host community faced similar challenges: only 6% of the women we met had received more than a primary level education, 8% had a business, and a mere 10% had mobile phones.

In addition to challenges regarding education and business opportunities, accessing healthcare remains difficult, particularly for women in host communities. Poor access to maternal health services is reflected by the persistently elevated maternal mortality rate. Turkana county, where Kakuma is located, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Kenya, most recently reported at 1,594 per 100,000, which is three times the national average. These numbers are concerning not only because of the devastating effects of maternal mortality on families and communities, but also because of the statistically significant link between maternal mortality and negative GDP growth (see graphic below).

Modelling from these data suggests that a 50% reduction in maternal mortality could lead to doubling of economic gains. Furthermore, adding gender parity to the reduction in maternal mortality could result in even greater economic growth. According to a recent report on parity and GDP, GDP could be increased by 26% if women participated equally to the economy. Consequently, it makes economic sense to tackle maternal mortality, and to achieve parity in education and business opportunities. Furthermore, it addresses sustainable development goals (SDGs) of ending poverty, ensuring healthy lives and achieving gender equality.

Although my first visit left me with a bleak picture of the condition of women in Turkana, my second visit filled me with hope. I saw that the conditions are ideal for the inclusion of women as leaders, harnessing their power to drive sustainable economic growth and transform maternal health outcomes. There isn't a better time than now for several reasons:

First, Turkana has a diversified and rapidly growing economy that is becoming a key player in the energy sector. Last month, Africa's largest wind power plant was opened in the county. It has the capacity to generate 310 megawatts of energy and will contribute significantly to the Kenya national grid.

Second, thanks to its refugee population, Turkana is diverse. More than 19 nationalities are represented in its population, providing immediate links between Turkana and 19 countries. It shares borders with Uganda to the west, and South Sudan and Ethiopia to the north; this has important implications for trade within the region and beyond. Lessons learned in this diverse population have potential for application in other refugee situations in the region and globally for other similar displaced populations.

Third, the governor Josphat Nanok is progressive and committed to inclusion and integrated development as evidenced by the ongoing implementation of the County Integrated Development Plan, and the Kalobeyei Integrated Socio Economic Plan. These initiatives have served as a model for the rest of the country and are consistent with the country’s “Big 4” agenda of universal health coverage, food security, housing and manufacturing, as well as Kenya’s Vision 2030.

Miriam, from Kalemchuch village, with the author

Fourth, and most importantly, women in Turkana are ready to engage and to lead. From the business and entrepreneurship standpoint, young global leaders (YGLs) recently concluded an entrepreneurship and leadership training for 30 refugee and host entrepreneurs, including young women entrepreneurs in their 20s from Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi, Congo and Uganda, with businesses in retail, art and food industries. The cohort included Teresa from South Sudan who wants to see her business grow exponentially with increased capital and a larger team.

With regards to maternal health, we met and spoke to 100 women from host villages. We met Miriam, from Kalemchuch village, a mother of nine children, who highlighted local challenges, including a limited health workforce and the need for more health information in communities. She emphasized the need to translate insights into action and was one of the 94 women who volunteered to become leaders in their communities to develop and implement solutions to transform maternal outcomes in Turkana.

It is precisely in response to Miriam's request to translate insight into action that I will return to Turkana and work with women there to develop women-led solutions to reduce maternal mortality. Some of these simple actions may include educating men about the importance of maternal health.

In addition, YGL engagement will continue with a mentorship program that will benefit women entrepreneurs. The mentorship will provide support as they implement the new knowledge they have acquired. We cannot achieve sustainable economic growth when women are dying. We cannot achieve sustainable economic growth when half the population is excluded from education and business opportunities. T​here is a clear opportunity for female leadership, entrepreneurship and a community-led maternal health initiative to drive economic and health transformation in Turkana – if communities, the Turkana county government, humanitarian and development actors and the private sector all come together.