I know a lot of people who are driven to do something. When we were in high school, for example, Paul Allen and I would get quite absorbed in software projects—including neglecting sleep and showers. But that pales in comparison to the determination of Dr. Damaris Matoke-Muhia, a leader in the fight against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Damaris grew up in Birongo, Kenya, a rural village in the country’s western highlands. She showed remarkable talent in math and science from an early age, but she experienced discrimination at school and in her community because of her gender. Even some extended family members couldn’t understand why the family would “waste” (as they put it) precious resources on Damaris’s school fees, given that most girls in her village got married early or dropped out before completing secondary school.
Despite the social pressures, her father, who was a schoolteacher, was adamant that Damaris continue her studies. After Damaris graduated from secondary school, her father sold cows and a plot of land to pay for her tuition at the University of Mysore, in India. But he could afford to send her only $50 every three months for rent and living expenses. So five days a week, Damaris walked more than 15 miles to the university and back, and she barely ate enough to survive. “If I couldn’t eat a meal at a friend’s house, I would often go two days without eating,” she says. “But I refused to break, and I never missed a class.” She entered university weighing about 150 pounds, and when she finished her studies in India, she was down to only 90 pounds. Many neighbors assumed she had contracted HIV/AIDS. “They ridiculed my father. They said, ‘You spent all that money, and now she comes home to die.’”
On top of deprivation, Damaris suffered a huge loss while she was studying in India. She was 23 and working on a master’s degree in biotechnology when her younger brother Abel, also a gifted science student, died of an especially dangerous form of malaria. Damaris couldn’t afford a ticket home for the funeral services.
Abel’s death had a profound effect on Damaris’s life, giving her clarity on how she would use the education for which she and her parents had sacrificed. “For the first time, I knew my education was not a mistake or a waste,” she explains. “I knew I could play a role in eliminating malaria in my home country.”
After returning to Kenya, Damaris took on an almost-impossible load again. While pursuing a doctorate in molecular medicine, she also worked full time as a research officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) so she would have money to help put her seven surviving siblings—including three girls—through university. Thanks to her support, all seven earned undergraduate degrees, and two went on to complete post-graduate degrees as well.
Today, Dr. Damaris Matoke-Muhia is Principal Research Scientist at KEMRI and is manager for the Capacity Building, Gender Mainstreaming, and Career Progression program at the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association. In the field, she traps mosquitoes to study their behavior and learn how they develop insecticide resistance. In the lab, she is researching new techniques to counter this resistance and specific innovations to control malaria. In villages across Kenya, she surveys breeding sites, investigates the effectiveness of preventive tools, conducts health education for families, and screens for malaria infections. On the international level, she is helping women rise to leadership positions in the fight against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Her focus on women is not just a function of the gender discrimination she faces to this day. It’s also driven by the knowledge that the world has been trying to fight malaria with one hand tied behind its back.
Research demonstrates that men hold 75 percent of all leadership positions in global health—even though women perform 70 percent of all healthcare services worldwide and, perhaps even more important, hold the key to implementing effective malaria control measures at the household level. “Women are clearly in charge in the villages I travel to for field work,” Damaris says.
This is why our foundation is supporting Damaris’s work to open the doors to women in community-level initiatives and senior positions in international health organizations. As Damaris says, “If we’re serious about malaria elimination in Africa, women must help develop, design, deliver, and implement strategies that take account of the reality that women are in charge of ensuring things go well at the household level.”
Damaris and her colleagues have researched the major obstacles that make it hard for women to take top leadership roles, and now they’re addressing each one. For example, they are providing leadership training to women in science, helping rising leaders find mentors, and advocating for workplace policies that support women.
Damaris offers multiple reasons for optimism. For example, she will soon be able to use her networks of women leaders to help deploy RTS,S—the world’s first malaria vaccine. Other effective control measures include improved insecticide-treated bed nets and attractive targeted sugar baits. In combination, these new tools will prevent tens of thousands of children from getting malaria each year. They will also help free mothers to focus on things other than taking care of family members suffering with malaria—giving a big boost to their productivity at home and in the workplace.
Her greatest source of optimism is her own children. In addition to having a 10-month-old son, she and her husband have two daughters, ages 13 and 10, who are outstanding science students and want to pursue health as a career. Their older daughter, Amirah, wants to be a neonatologist. Their younger daughter, Anabel, wants to be a veterinarian. Thanks to their parents and their community of friends in Nairobi, neither girl sees any reason to limit her dreams.