Three years ago, as civil engineering student Edith Mwirigi was preparing to vie for the powerful position of Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) chairperson, her opponent visited her room. He was in the company of a couple of mean-looking male and female students.
“You can’t compete against me, you might as well pack your belongings and go home,” he told her.
Intimidated, that night she could not bring herself to sleep. The next day, her friends hired a couple of ‘bodyguards’ to escort her out of campus.
A year before that, Ms Mwirigi had made history by becoming the first female student leader to be elected to the coveted position of SONU (now known as University of Nairobi Students Association, UNSA) Secretary General.
But now she was facing an opponent known for intimidation and buying off student election commissioners. In one of the elections, the opponent was alleged to have bought off all student electoral commissioners, and when his opponents arrived at the tallying hall, they found no electoral materials and no student electoral officials but goons waiting for them with whips.
Her opponent was Embakasi East MP Paul Ongili, alias Babu Owino, the four-time former SONU Chairperson.
As fortunes change like the tides of the sea, a couple of week ago, Ms Mwirigi and Mr Owino shared a cup of tea as they celebrated the win of Ann Mvurya, the first female student to be elected SONU chair.
“It was akin to an abomination to compete with male students for powerful student union positions. Some would even threaten you with violence,” she recalled.
Last week, Ms Mvurya joined a list of very few female student leaders who went all the way to the ballot and defeated their male opponents for the coveted senior student union positions of Chairperson and Secretary General. She got three times more votes than her main opponent, Samuel Ayoma.
The few female students who have risen to those positions are a force to reckon with. Before Ms Mvurya, only two female student leaders had been voted chair of student union councils in public universities.
In 2015, Rose Gakuo, a news anchor at K24 TV station, became the first female chairperson of students in a public university after she won the position during the elections of Laikipia University student leaders.
Ms Gakuo, who scored a first class honors in communication and media, went on to co-found the Kenya University Female Student Leaders’ Association (KUFSLA), an organisation whose aim is to empower more female students to join university politics.
Last month, KUFSULA officials were among the speakers at a meeting held at the Clarence Hotel, Westlands, where hundreds of elected female student leaders from over 20 universities congregated to learn from one another.
In 2016, firebrand politician, Winnie Opiyo, became the second female president (chairperson) to be elected in a public university after she defeated three male opponents during the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) student association elections.
Before the female student pioneer chairpersons in public universities, some women had already made a mark in private higher institutions of learning.
In 2010 for instance, Maureen Gitau became the first female to be elected chairperson of a university student council after she won the chairperson position for the Strathmore University Student Council.
Other than position of chairperson, a couple of female student leaders have broken the glass ceiling to be elected Secretary General of students’ unions, another powerful position whose holder is normally the spokesperson of university students.
The pioneer among them is Homa Bay Woman Representative Gladys Wanga, who is the first woman elected Kenyatta University Students Association (KUSA) Secretary General.
In 2006, former Nairobi City County Executive Committee Member Janet Ouko became the first elected female secretary general for the Moi University Students Organization (MUSO).
In 2015, Angeline Omwamba, an engineering student, became the second female secretary general of the Students Union of Egerton University after former Runyenjes MP Cecile Mbarire.
Other female student leaders who have taken over male-dominated positions include Irene Kendi alias Mama Yao, who was the first ever female Vice Chairperson of SONU after she won the seat in 2014. The seat was later won by another woman, Abigael Gacheru.
“The recent wins mean that women can compete with men for any seat and win. We should not wait to be given leadership positions on a silver platter. Even in Sudan, it’s the women who are leading the revolution,” Ms Mwirigi says.
In the neighbouring country of Sudan, the protests that toppled the country’s strongman Omar al-Bashir have been termed as ‘a women’s revolution.”
Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old university student, has been hailed as the symbol of the protests calling for political change in Sudan after a photograph of her addressing a rally went viral.
Daphine Githuku, who became the first lady to vie for UNSA chairperson, says that the increasing number of female students pursuing leadership in student unions should be encouraged.
“Through engaging in student politics, we as young people can inspire confidence in other women to take up elective positions,” she says.
TOP 10 PIONEERING WOMEN IN STUDENT POLITICS
1. EDITH MWIRIGI, 29, civil engineer
Edith Mwirigi, a civil engineer, was the first and only female to be elected Secretary General of the Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU).
She also served as the Vice-Chairperson of the Union.
2. ROSE GAKUO, 27, journalism graduate
In 2015, Rose Gakuo, was elected Chairperson of Laikipia University student association.
During her tenure, there was no single student protest at the university. Ms Gakuo, now a news anchor at K24, graduated with a first class honours in Communication and Media studies.
3. ANGELINE OMWAMBA, 26, instrumentation and control engineer
Angeline, who was the second Secretary General of Students Union of Egerton University, after iron lady of politics, former Runyenjes MP Cecile Mbarire, believes that female students can win any seat in student politics.
“They just need believe in themselves and be dedicated,” she says.
4. ANN MVURYA, 20, law student
Early, this month, 20 year-old Anne became the first female to be elected President of the giant University of Nairobi Students Association (UNSA).
“A number of ladies have vied before but met many hurdles. This is an opportunity for us (women) to start afresh and bring forth innovative and impactful student leadership,” she said.
5. WINNIE OPIYO, 25, criminologist
In 2016, Winnie Nyadiga Opiyo, was elected first female chairperson for the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) student association elections.
“The narrative of women in leadership continues to change, proving that leadership is inbuilt and unisex. The goal remains the same: arising against the war of the mind to normalise this space.”
6. MAUREEN GITAU, 30, IT expert
In 2010, Maureen became the first female student in a Kenyan university, public and private, to become chairperson of a students’ union after emerging victorious during the Strathmore university student council polls.
7. ABIGAEL GACHERU, 26, Real Estate graduate
Abigael, who is pursuing a Master of Science in Property Finance at the University of Westminster, London, was the second female Vice Chairperson at SONU.
8. KATE KOKOMU, 26, Economist
Kate is the only SONU student leader to have ever served as the union’s treasurer for two consecutive terms in the history of the union.
9. DAPHINE GITHUKU, 23, political science student
Daphine Githuku was the first woman to attempte to vie for the powerful position of SONU chairperson. Weeks to the polls, the university administration disqualified her in what she says was witch-hunt.
“The university fears largely student-driven candidates. I was a victim of this fear,” the fourth year UoN International studies and political science student says.
10. IRENE KENDI, 32, education graduate
In 2014, Irene became the first ever female student vice chairperson of SONU. After her election, the education graduate co-founded the Kenya Universities Female Student Leaders Association (KUFSLA), an organisation that brings together current and former female student leaders in an effort to eliminate gender discrimination at university and national level.