Melvine Praxides Ouyo MC/MPA 2019 came to Harvard Square as a tourist. A year and a half later, she left with her mid-career MPA from Harvard Kennedy School.
When she first visited Cambridge in 2017, she stopped at The Coop and bought a book about the top essays written by students admitted to Harvard. Her idea was to give it to her daughters to inspire them as they pondered their postsecondary options. But as she read the book, she thought, “Why not me?”
At the time, Ouyo was visiting the United States as part of her work as a reproductive health nurse in Kenya. Caring for women from some of Nairobi’s most impoverished neighborhoods allowed Ouyo to see the toll taken by unplanned pregnancies. She tells countless stories of women whose health was affected by lack of resources, including the time a woman was in labor for 48 hours before finally calling an ambulance, only to die in the vehicle because it ran out of fuel on the way to the clinic, Family Health Options Kenya.
It was no surprise that Ouyo was concerned when, on his first day in office, President Donald Trump reinstated the so-called global gag rule, which prohibited U.S. foreign aid from going to facilities that provided abortions or referred patients to clinics that did. Since Ronald Reagan first implemented this rule, it has been successively rescinded and reinstated, depending on which party held the presidency.
Ouyo, in her second semester at HKS, responded to a renewed focus on the rule with a forceful op-ed in The Washington Post:
Family Health Options Kenya, along with many other organizations, was faced with a choice: either sign the policy and stop providing comprehensive sexual reproductive health-care services or decline to sign and lose desperately needed U.S. funding. Signing this policy would have been a violation of our ethical duty to do no harm, protect our patients’ safety and save lives. We declined. As a result, we lost about $2.2 million in funding. In the two years following our decision, Family Health Options Kenya has been forced to close clinics in poor areas and terminate free services and mobile outreach that provided care for more than 76,000 people annually.
By penning this op-ed, Ouyo was putting into action one of her goals: to scale her work on reproductive health to help many more women. She says, “I got my MPA to speak on behalf of the women who are marginalized and vulnerable in society. As a communicator and a representative, I learned to negotiate and engage in difficult conversations, a skill I’m using while connecting with different stakeholders, including the opposition, for the public good.”
While at HKS, she worked on the HKS Fund’s Graduating Class Gift Committee, where she was one of 10 students who helped educate other students about the important role philanthropy plays at the School. “I received funding from Harvard and I knew I had to give back. This is one way I could help the community that provided me with so much.”
Ouyo is glad she stopped in at The Coop that fall day in 2017, and glad she submitted her application to HKS just in time to be considered for admission to the MC/MPA class of 2019. “HKS broadened my scope of service by equipping me with additional knowledge, skills, and experience to stand out as a public servant and an advocate. I’m currently engaging reproductive health experts, organizations, and other key stakeholders in Kenya, East Africa, and beyond to create and enhance partnerships for improved access to quality reproductive health services and rights for all.”