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They are a testimony of boldness

Tuesday March 7 2017

Clockwise from left: Effie Owuor, Field Marshal

Clockwise from left: Effie Owuor, Field Marshal Muthoni, Phoebe Asiyo, Dr Eddah Gachukia, Kamla Sikand and Martha Karua. PHOTOS| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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In 2011, former US President Barack Obama proclaimed March as the Women’s History Month.

This month has its roots in the  International Women’s Day, which is celebrated today.

This year’s campaign theme is #BeBoldForChange. We are not only celebrating women who took the step to be bold for change, but also challenging everyone to take calculated and intentional bold steps to effect change in their own small way.

It is one way to kick off the International Women’s Day, which is annually observed by the United Nations and other countries across the globe, to kick-start conversations about the issues that disproportionately affect women.

Although women have made several remarkable strides towards equality, there is still a lot left to be done, and this year’s theme couldn’t have come at a better time. We are living in interesting times, when women are not only actively participating in the voting process, but also making waves in the political process. Think US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

We are also living at a time when the question is not if women can run corporates, break the glass ceiling, but how many women are running corporates. Think Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors and Sheryl Sandberg Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

The issue is no longer about if women can excel in male-dominated fields such as technology; the issue today is how we can get more women into these fields that were supposedly a reserve for the men. Several names come to mind; Judith Owigar, founder of Akirachix and Dr Evangeline Chao, a computer science lecturer at Kenya Methodist University who also mentors young women into the world of tech.

She is very ambitious is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”

- Sherly Sandberg, author

Gender is a prickly matter. A divisive issue that has mistakenly been left to feminists and women’s rights crusaders. But it need not be this divisive, for the gender issue is both a male and a female issue that needs to be addressed openly and bluntly. Of course, observing a day like that that celebrates women does not make men any smaller, nor does it downplay the importance of men. It just serves to remind us that we ought to remind girls and women that they too, could and should advance with boldness. 

Indeed, one is reminded of the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book: We Should All Be Feminists. The Nigerian author candidly put it: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man…’”


Sherly Sandberg in her best-selling book, Lean In, published in 2015, echoed these words so poignantly with laser-sharp focus on the challenges of today’s ambitious woman. “She is very ambitious is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”     

This year’s mantra serves to dismantle every can’t-do-it attitude instilled in every girl and every woman. The theme is really about encouraging women and girls to not be shy about going for what they want. That they should charge forward, and charge real hard, without the fear of being labelled ‘too ambitious’ or ‘too bold’ or ‘manly’. It simply serves to tell all girls and all women; “Don’t just think big. Think Great. Don’t just be brave. Be bold.”

It is for this reason that we celebrate the women whose lives have been a testimony of boldness, bravery and audacity. Those women who listened to the right voices in their lives, who beat the terrain for those behind them. We are today celebrating those women who cautiously forged on to greatness, with or without the support of a society that was for a long time, too timid to talk about gender issues.

But as we celebrate these exceptional women who have spectacularly broken barriers, we must not forget some very crucial issues.

First, according to a 12-country, 2015 research by African Development Bank, out of 2,865 board of directors seats, only 364 were held by women. This means that women held a paltry 12.7 per cent of all board seats of Africa’s top listed companies. The report also found that out of the 12 countries sampled (including South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda), Kenya has the highest percentage of women on boards, at 19.8 per cent. Although Kenya seems to be doing comparatively better, less than 20 per cent representation is unacceptable in a country with so many emancipated and educated women.

Furthermore, in Kenya, women comprise 52 per cent of the Kenyan population and 60 per cent of the country’s electorate, but political representation is heavily skewed in favour of men. Between 2007 and 2013, the population of women in Parliament has remained dismally low, at 9.8 per cent in 2007 to 19.5 per cent in 2013.

These numbers must change in favour of women. Not because women are ‘our sisters, daughters and mothers’, but because as Hillary Clinton said in her remarkable 1995 Beijing Speech, “Women’s rights are human rights”.

Here are some of the bold Kenyan women we choose to celebrate today:


She is a woman of many firsts. For starters, she was the first Kenyan woman to receive a law degree from the University of Dar es Salaam. She was also the first woman prosecutor in Kenya’s office of the Attorney General. Effie is also the first woman judge in Kenya in the High Court and Court of Appeal. In 2005, the then President Mwai Kibaki appointed her to sit at the ICC in Hague. She is also known for chairing the taskforce that resulted in the Children’s Act 2001. Not one to be tossed around, Owuor defied the outdated wife inheritance culture when she refused to be inherited following her husband’s death.


In a book Prof Wanjiku co-authored with Patricia Kameri-Mbote Gender in Electoral Politics in Kenya: The unrealised constitutional promise, she articulates that a lot still needs to be done if women are to play a significant and active role in the country’s electoral politics. She argues that the law is not enough in engendering gender equality in any realm, let alone politics. She says that the law is neither self-enforcing nor free from social and political influences, and that the only way out is to change the rules of the game to include more women in politics. The Professor of Literature and Director, African Women Studies Centre, University of Nairobi, is widely published on literature, women and gender issues. She was also the chair of the Constitution of Kenya Commission Review  and today we celebrate her for her work with the commission. But probably the biggest takeaway from Prof Wanjiku today would be a gem found in her book A Time for Harvest, in which she challenges the 16 women MPs of the 290 elected that their mere presence in Parliament will be fruitless if that opportunity is not properly utilised.


A Kenyan educationist and entrepreneur, Dr Eddah Gachukia, the director and co-founder of Riara Group of Schools, believes that education of women and girls is the key to personal and national development. She was the Founding Executive Director of Forum for African Women Educationists (Fawe) between 1993-1998. Fawe is a non-governmental Pan African Organisation based in Nairobi. It serves more than 30 African countries. Its membership comprised of women ministers of Education and University vice-chancellors in Africa. Dr Gachukia holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Literature from the University of Nairobi and is married to Daniel Gachukia, who is the CEO and Chair of Riara Group of Schools. 


“If no man present here is brave enough to talk, I shall talk,”

She might not have made it in our history books alongside the likes of Mekatilili wa Menza, but Elizabeth Ciokorane was a bold woman in an unlikely situation during the colonial times. Times were tough, Mau Mau suspects were treated inhumanely by the colonial masters, villages were ton apart and people moved to emergency villages which were just small concentration camps. Women and children were suffering and nobody dared say a word. Ciokorane, not even a chief by then, stood up boldy and uttered those famous words; “If no man present here is brave enough to talk, I shall talk”. She outlined the suffering of women, children and the old and demanded that Mau Mau suspects be at least treated as human beings. Her boldness paid off massively. She impressed the District Officer, who appointed her the chief for Auki location in 1954. She served until 1964. Her valour was not the only thing chief Ciokorane was known for. A shrewd woman, she gallantly fought to establish several projects, such as the Auki Primary School (now a secondary school) and the Kanthiari Coffee Factory.


Though her name is glaringly missing from the books of history, Moraa Mokaya Nditi’s action led to a uprising against the colonists. As the story goes, Nditi, a medicine woman, conspired with her step-son Otenyo to kill North Cote, an assistant District Commissioner. She gave Otenyo beer and traditional medicine supposed to protect him from bullets and encouraged him to ambush the District Commissioner on January 12, 1908. After the death of North Cote, Nditi was arrested and interrogated but later released because of her advanced age. Her arrest only served to encourage her to revolt and treat injured soldiers in later wars with the colonists. She died in 1929 and continues to be immortalised in Abagusii songs and dances.


Folklore has it that no amount of beating or torture could crack Muthoni, a distinctive Mau Mau operative who started out as a sergeant to captain, to brigadier and later Field Marshall. Born in the 1930’s in Nyeri, nothing about Muthoni wa Kirima’s childhood hinted the life ahead of her. She joined the Mau Mau chiefly because it bothered her that the white settlers had huge swathes of land and natives like her and her father were reduced to mere servants. Although women were not yet seen as potential members of the Mau Mau, Muthoni became a great asset to the group. She secretly supplied MauMau with food and acted as a conduit for information for the fighters. She was also a spy, collecting intelligence from the people who worked for the white settlers for the benefit of the Mau Mau. Muthoni was indeed a tough cookie, helping the Mau Mau to obtain weapons and bullets as well as recruiting more members into the group. The title of “Field Marshall” allowed her to play the role of able assistant to Dedan Kimathi and after his death, she took over the leadership of the Mau Mau in the forest.


Kamla was a Kenyan of Asian origin and a fearless activist. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, the Kenya Professional and Business Women Club and Women’s Political Alliance, Kamla was a remarkable strategist for women’s rights. She offered her home to women as a place for meetings, discussions and negotiations as well as political debates. As a member of the women’s consensus group, she aggressively pushed for Affirmative Action and other women’s gains in the constitutional review process. It was Kamla’s tough negotiation efforts that saw women go as delegates to the Bomas of Kenya for the constitutional review process.


She is a Kenyan politician, a former long-standing Member of Parliament for Gichugu Constituency and an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. In December 1995, she was recognised by the Federation of Kenya Women Lawyers for advancing the cause of women. She was Minister of Justice and resigned from that position in April 2009. In 2001, when the Constitutional Review Bill was laid before the House, the entire Opposition with the exception of Karua, walked out of Parliament. The Bill had been rejected by the Opposition as well as the Civil Society, but Karua was of the view that as elected representatives, instead of walking out, it would be more prudent to remain in Parliament and put the objections on record. She therefore chose to stay behind and her objections to the Bill were duly recorded in the Hansard. She is one of the members of a draft team for constitution review law 1998/1999.


The former Karachuonyo MP is one of the longest serving female parliamentarians in the country. In 1997, Asiyo tabled the Affirmative Action Bill in Parliament, which pushed for an increased number of women parliamentarians by 18, at least two from every province (now counties) and an extra two from Rift Valley. Although the motion never became law, it triggered a conversation about women’s rights and leadership opportunities in the country. She is also the chairperson of the Caucus for Women’s Leadership, which she has held since August 1997. She was also one of the commissioners at the Constitution of Kenya review commission that ensured women’s issues were presented in the 2002 first draft