March 22, 2017
WomenStrong International is an organization of bold women, from the brave girls in our Girls’ Clubs in Ghana, Haiti, India, and Kenya, to the women who face challenges each day, as they work to lift themselves out of extreme urban poverty. So the theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is one we can relate to -- #BeBoldforChange. It would be hard to find a bolder, more dedicated, more innovative and passionate group of women than the Project Directors who run WomenStrong programs in our five Consortium member sites. In honor of Women's Day this year, we celebrate these bold women with a series of short profiles. We hope you find their stories as inspiring as we do and that these stories encourage you, too, to #BeBoldforChange.
As a little girl living in rural Kenya with no running water or electricity, Beldina Opiyo, the now Director of WomenStrong Consortium Member Alice Visionary Foundation Project, did not know if she would ever make it out of her small village. But Beldina, the youngest of eight with six brothers, knew that she would not allow herself to be limited by her gender in her future career. Beldina was raised in a gender-neutral household: “There were no ‘boys’ chores’ and ‘girls’ chores’ in our house. Everyone was treated equally. My brothers used to encourage me to ‘be bold like us.’ The sky’s the limit!” When she doubted herself or her future, her mother Alice, a lay pastor, reminded her that, “If God closes the door, he opens windows for you one day to do his work.” Alice raised Beldina and her siblings with a strict hand and a deep love of God. Her home was always open to those in need of love, shelter, or a meal. As a woman dedicated to doing the Lord’s work, she instilled this commitment to her faith and service in all of her children.
Just as her mother had promised, in Beldina’s view, God opened a window for her to leave her village in western Kenya, about 50 minutes outside of Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu, to finish primary school in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and later went to a high school in Nakuru. Despite earning top marks in High School, Beldina lacked the funds required to attend university. Instead, Beldina’s brothers, who had always treated her as equal, raised money for her to attend secretarial school. After working as a secretary for a few years and fending off repeated sexual advances from her bosses, Beldina finally received a partial scholarship to attend East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where one of her brothers had also studied. There she earned a Bachelor’s in Community Health and a Master’s Degree in Public Health and went on to work for several years in public health in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
During this time, the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Kenya hard, with Kisumu and the surrounding areas among the most profoundly affected areas, peaking with a HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 22% at the time. Each time Beldina visited home, the faces of AIDS orphans and the suffering of her fellow Kenyans haunted her long after her return to the States. She knew that she had been enormously privileged even to complete school, let alone to attend an American university. Her education had prepared her to pursue her life’s work, which she viewed as God’s work, whereas so many others in Kenya, especially girls, were not afforded that opportunity. Beldina wanted to share the same joy and fulfillment that she got from her own education with women and girls across Kenya. So after much prayer, she rallied her siblings together, to start the Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP), to honor their late mother Alice and her vision and dedication to serving the needy.
For several years after its founding, AVFP was run by Beldina’s siblings, with her guidance from the US. Eventually, against everyone’s advice, Beldina says she “took a bold step of faith and stepped out of the boat, just as Jesus did when he walked on water,” and returned to her former home in Kisumu to work in the city and its environs. Under Beldina’s leadership, AVFP now serves women and girls, as well as men and boys in some programs, in the areas of health, education, and economic empowerment. With WomenStrong’s support, AVFP has expanded their mandate to help women and girls meet their essential needs in the Kisumu slums of Manyatta. Although Beldina regularly faces challenges and setbacks in her work, her faith keeps her pressing ahead. With everything she does, Beldina commits it to prayer first, and uses spiritual guidance to ensure that every aspect of AVFP’s work is in the service of God, helping the needy and the poor, just as her mother Alice always did.
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Each year, WomenStrong International brings together the experienced, dedicated leaders of our Consortium member organizations in Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya and Washington, D.C., to share their innovative initiatives helping women and girls overcome extreme urban poverty.