Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. It is a day when we look back and celebrate the massive achievements women have made in our societies, while pushing for more progress in areas that women are under-represented and disenfranchised.
The history of the International Women’s Day can be traced to 1908, when over 15,000 women marched across New York City demanding equal rights.
Two years later, in 1910, Clara Zetkin proposed the idea of the International Women’s Day.
The day was officially celebrated on March 19, 1911, but was later moved to March 8 in 1913 and it has been celebrated ever since. So the International Women’s Day is a phenomenon that has been with us for the past over 100 years. In 1975, the United Nations officially recognised the day and brought in a theme that would be celebrated each year.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress, a theme that appreciates how far women have come and pushes for even more progress in leadership, workplace, politics, education, sports, the arts and every other aspect.
That women have come far and made massive progress is not in question. However, women still have a long and tough road ahead of them, particularly in areas of corporate and political leadership.
In Kenya, particularly, women still remain under-represented in the boardrooms, with 21 per cent representation, according to the Leadership and Diversity Survey Report 2017 conducted by the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM).
Although this is an improvement from 14 per cent in 2012 and 18 per cent in 2015, we still need more women at the very top of public listed companies.
Last year’s elections saw women make history; with three female governors and three female elected senators. However, the two thirds majority rule still seems like a forlorn dream for Kenyan women, who are still under-represented in the current Cabinet.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, 35 pioneering women are profiled and celebrated for their courage, tenacity and diligence to become the “first” in their various fields. Ranging from the first female Member of Parliament to younger women such as Kenya’s first female marine pilot, these luminaries beat the path for many who came after them, pressing for the progress of Kenyan women.
1. Mary Okello: First woman bank branch manager
The fourteenth born of 16 children, this daughter of Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori and Mama Mariamu Awori attended Butere Girls and later Alliance Girls High School. She was among the first 13 girls admitted to Alliance Girls High School — alongside Justice Effie Owuor, Prof Florida Karani, Elizabeth Wanjiru (actress of TV programme “Mother-in-Law”) and Elizabeth Masiga.
Her career kicked off at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1967 before moving to Barclays Bank six months later. In 1977, she became Kenya’s first woman bank branch manager, at a time when women could not access loans without the approval of their husbands.
Mary, together with other female colleagues at the bank, founded the Barclays Bank Women’s Association to mentor young women into the world of banking. She was also the first chair of the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) in 1982. She left the bank in 1985 to later start Makini Schools.
2. Joan Waithaka: First black headmistress of Alliance Girls High School
Before the first girls were admitted to Alliance Girls in 1948, four young women were already studying in Alliance High School — with the boys — from 1946.
These four girls were: Margaret Kenyatta, Isabella Muthoni, Mukwa Mugo and Joan Gitau (later, Joan Waithaka). Joan Waithaka would later go on to be the first African headmistress of Alliance Girls High School in 1969.
Joan, the daughter of Musa Gitau — the pioneer Presbyterian minister — attended African Girls’ High School (now, Alliance Girls High School) between 1944 and 1947.
She would later pursue a diploma in education from Makerere University between 1949-1951. The strict disciplinarian became a teacher at Alliance Girls High School before becoming the headmistress in 1969.
3. Grace Onyango- First woman MP, first woman mayor of Kisumu
Now 90 years old, Ms Onyango stands strong as a beacon of hope for Kenyan women who are still under-represented in Kenyan politics. She is the first Iron Lady of Kenyan politics, having been the first female mayor of Kisumu in 1967 and later, the first female MP in 1969.
She was also the first woman secretary-general of the Luo Union. Described as a fearless trailblazer who was not afraid of being the minority in the murky world of politics, Ms Onyango cleared the path for other women who would come after her.
4. Justice Effie Owuor- First woman appellate judge
In 1970, Justice Owuor became Kenya’s first female magistrate. In 1982, President Daniel Moi appointed her to the High Court, making her the first female appellate judge in the country. The former student of Alliance Girls High School, Justice Owuor chaired the National Task Force of Children’s Laws (1992-1996) which came up with the Children’s Act of 2001.
Throughout her lustrous career, Justice Owuor has presided over in marriage, criminal and family cases, besides chairing several taskforces. She is also remembered for leading a spirited fight against the Luo custom of wife inheritance, having herself being a victim of the practice.
5. Prof Wangari Maathai- First woman PhD, first Kenyan Nobel laureate
A woman of many firsts, Prof Maathai is a trailblazer by any standards. Born on April 1, 1940, she was the first woman in Kenya and Africa to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD in 1971.
Her activism efforts to save forests and the environment are well documented, but it is her bravery and tenacity to stay true to her calling that is most admirable.
The founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organisation that deals in environmental advocacy, the former Tetu MP shone the light for many women who would follow in her footsteps.
6. Charity Ngilu- First female presidential candidate
The current governor of Kitui County, Ms Ngilu is among the first Kenyan female governors. However, this is not her first “first”, she was also the first female presidential candidate in the 1997 General Election, where she came fifth. Her political career began in 1992 when she was elected Kitui Central MP. Ms Ngilu has previously served as Water minister in President’s Kibaki’s administration and was later appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta as Lands Cabinet secretary. Ms Ngilu would later resign on corruption allegations and re-invented herself when she run a successful bid for the Kitui governor’s seat last year.
7. Raychelle Omamo- First female LSK chairperson
Currently the Defence Cabinet Secretary, Ms Omamo was the first female chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya and also the first female Cabinet secretary for Defence.
She was the first woman ambassador of Kenya to France, Portugal, The Holy See and the Republic of Serbia and also a Permanent Delegate of Kenya to Unesco.
A law graduate of University of Kent at Canterbury in the UK, she has been a member of several taskforces, including the Task Force on the Establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission for Kenya. She was declared Jurist of the year 2002.
8. Prof Julia Ojiambo- First female in the Cabinet (as assistant minister)
Among the first Kenyans to attend the prestigious Harvard University, where she earned a Master of Science in Public Health (Nutrition) in 1969, Prof Ojiambo was the first woman to sit in Kenya’s Cabinet as Housing assistant minister in 1975.
Earlier on, in 1965, she became the first African woman to be appointed at the then Royal College (now University of Nairobi) to teach in the department of Education.
Also, in 1965, she was the first African woman warden of the University of Nairobi’s Halls of Residence in which she was in charge of the women’s studies.
A professor of nutrition, she is celebrated for developing a protein-rich biscuit that was instrumental in the treatment of Kwashiorkor in East Africa.
9. Dr Jackie Kitulu- First female Kenya Medical Association chairperson
The graduate of University of Nairobi, Dr Kitulu is the current national chairperson of the Kenya Medical Association and the first woman chairperson of the association.
Dr Kitulu has a rich experience in healthcare management, having chaired the Kenya Medical Women’s Association and sits on the Finance Committee of the Kenya Red Cross Society as well as the Safaricom Health Advisory Board.
She holds a Master’s in Business Administration- Healthcare Management from Strathmore. She was awarded the Organisation of Women in International Trade Woman of the Year in 2010.
10. Anne Waiguru, Charity Ngilu, Joyce Laboso- First female governors
These three women collectively made history in Kenya as the first female governors breaking down barriers and smashing political glass ceilings. Dr Laboso, a former university lecturer, beat former governor Isaac Ruto for the Bomet seat, while former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Waiguru beat Mr Joseph Ndathi in the Kirinyaga race and Ms Ngilu (Kitui) unsat Dr Julius Malombe.
These women have proven that the place of women in national politics is not limited to MPs and woman representative seats, and that women have the capability to run successful campaigns and become county bosses.
11. Fatumah Ahmed- First female brigadier
In 2015, Fatumah Ahmed made headlines when President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed her as the first female brigadier in the Kenya Defence Forces. Ms Ahmed’s career in the military began in 1983 where she served in the Women Service Corps.
In 1985, she was posted to the Air Force. She has previously served in the Battalion Second Command and has worked as staff auditor as well as managing director of the Defence Forces Medical Insurance Scheme.
Prior to her appointment, Ms Ahmed was still the highest ranking woman in the military, serving as a colonel in charge of personnel at the Kenya Air force Headquarters.
12. Susan Kihika, Fatuma Dullo and Prof Margaret Kamar- First female senators
For the first time in Kenyan history, women would not sit in the Senate as nominated senators, but as elected leaders, with this trio clearing the way for future elected female senators.
Ms Kihika, a former Nakuru County assembly Speaker, failed at her first attempt in politics, when, in 2013, she unsuccessfully attempted to run for the Bahati parliamentary seat.
Ms Dullo, a former commissioner at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, was also the first female District Officer at the age of 22. Prof Kamar is a former assistant minister for Environment.
13. Prof Micere Mugo- First female faculty dean
Currently a professor of Literature in the department of African American Studies at Syracuse University in the United States, Prof Micere Mugo’s journey to the top began in Baricho, Kiringaya District.
She attended Limuru Girls High School, then an all-white girls high school, being the first African girl to attend the school. She would later attend Makerere University in Uganda where she studied drama and then proceeded to University of New Brunswick before returning to Kenya to teach at the University of Nairobi in 1973.
Her first work Daughter of My People Sing- was published in 1966 by the East African Literature Bureau.
In 1976, she collaborated with Ngugi wa Thiongo and together they wrote The Trial of Dedan Kimathi which was published by Heinemann. In 1978, she was elected Africa’s first female faculty dean.
14. Annette Kemoli- first woman to attain a nursing degree
In 1970, Annette Kemoli became the first Kenyan woman to earn a degree in nursing. The former student of Loreto Limuru Girls went to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) (then King George V Hospital) to study a diploma in nursing. She would later go to the UK for an advanced Diploma in Nursing and Midwifery.
She would then return to the country to work at KNH where she became the matron for midwifery and later worked at Pumwani Maternity Hospital.
15. Eunice Kiereini- First African President of the International Council of Nurses (ICN)
She was elected the first African President of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and served between 1981 and 1985. Perhaps one of Kenya’s most decorated nurses, Eunice was appointed Chief Nurse Officer at the age of 26 years- the youngest in the commonwealth. Trained in New Zealand’s Victoria University School of Nursing, Kiereini was Jomo Kenyatta’s private nurse and she played an instrumental role in establishing the National Nurses Association of Kenya in 1968. She is the wife of former head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini.
16. Charity Muya Ngaruiya- first female certified public accountant (CPA)
A trailblazer in the accounting profession, Charity Muya Ngaruiya was among the first women in Kenya to graduate with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1972. She would then pursue qualifications in chartered accountancy from the Institute of Certified Public Accountant of Kenya (ICPAK), graduating in 1976, making her the first female certified public accountant (CPA). Charity sits on the KCB Group Board, which she joined in June 2012. She also holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Nairobi and has previously served as a council member of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
17.Liz Wakesho Marami- first female marine pilot
At 29, Liz Marami is Kenya’s first female marine pilot. Trained at the prestigious marine training college- Arab Academy for Science and Technology- Marami turned down a scholarship to study law at the University of Nairobi to study navigation for five years, making her the first female marine pilot in East Africa. Her achievement is massive not because she is the pioneer fully trained marine pilot, but because worldwide, the women account for a paltry two per cent of the world’s 1.3 million seafarers.- according to the International Labour Organisation.
18Grace Ogot- First female Anglophone Kenyan writer to be published
In 1964, Grace Ogot was the first female English Kenyan writer to have her work published. Her first short story “A Year of Sacrifice” was published in the Black Orpheus journal in 1964 followed by several other books written in both English and Dholuo. Some of her popular works include The Promised Land published in 1966 and Land Without Thunder published in 1968 and The Other Woman (1992). In 1975, Grace represented Kenya as a delegate in the United Nations General Assembly at later at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 1976.
19. Muthoni Likimani- First Kenyan to establish a Public Relations Consultancy firm
Noni’s Publicity was Kenya’s first PR firm, established by Muthoni Likimani. Muthoni is also a celebrated author, being one of the pioneer African women to have their work published in 1969. A pioneering beauty queen and a broadcaster, Muthoni also dabbled in publishing having began a periodical publication known as Women of Kenya in 1973. She has also published several books, including Passbook Number F.47927, an account of the role that Kenyan played in the struggle for independence. Besides numerous children’s books, her other works include They Shall Be Chastised and her biography Fighting Without Ceasing.
20. Nyiva Mwendwa- First female cabinet minister
Her last stint in politics was the Kitui County Woman Representative. Nyiva Mwendwa was Kenya’s first woman minister and was in charge of Culture and Social Services in May 1995. The former student of Alliance Girls High School, has served as Member of Parliament for Kitui West constituency for three terms (1974, 1992 and 2002) and has been in active politics for over four decades. Nyiva holds a Master’s degree in Textile and Interior design from Cornell University.
21. Sabrina Wanjiku- first female winter Olympian (2018)
At 19, Sabrina Wanjiku Simader has already earned her place in Kenya’s books of history as the first female athlete to compete at the Winter Olympics in 2018 in the alpine skiing events. Christened “Kenya’s snow leopard” by the international media, Wanjiku began skiing at the age of three when her step father Josef took her out to the slopes. Her journey to Pyeonchang, South Korea actualised when she competed in the World championships in February 2017 becoming the second Kenyan and the first woman to compete in the winter Olympics after Philip Boit.
22.Dr Ngendo Mwangi- first woman physician
Florence Ngendo Mwangi, was Kenya’s first female doctor, having graduated from Smith College in 1961. Born in Kinoo, Dr Ngendo attended Alliance Girls High School and went to study in the United States under the Kennedy Airlifts Program. Ngendo was the first black African woman to attend Smith College in Massachusetts, US, and later the first African student to study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. When she returned to Kenya, she worked at the Kenyatta National Hospital for several years before leaving the public sector to set up her private practice in Athi River- the Athi River Clinic- being the only doctor with a staff of four, attending to hundreds of thousands of Maasais from Kajiado. In 1987, she opened the Reto Medical Centre at Sultan Hamud. Smith College later in 1973, established the Mwangi Cultural Centre at the university to celebrate this pioneering woman. She died in 1989.
23. Rev Dr Nyambura Njoroge- First woman clergy (PCEA)
She was the first ordained woman minister in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in 1982, and the first African woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1992.
She is also the first ordained African woman to earn a PhD in any theological field. A pioneer among African women theologians, Dr Nyambura said in a previous interview that she felt she was called to ministry at the age of 10, when her father asked her what she wanted to be in the future, to which she responded, “a teacher, but if the church ordained a woman, a church minister.”
Therefore, when the PCEA church voted to train women and later ordain them as church ministers, it was a matter of ‘when” not “if” Nyambura would pursue her dreams, opening the door to tens of other female ordained ministers in the Presbyterian church.
24. Aidah Njeri Munano- First Kenyan female architect
She was the first African woman to be registered as an architect and first woman to be employed as an architect in the ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, and the first Kenyan woman to serve as a chief architect.
Currently the Principal Secretary in the Lands ministry, Ms Munano has previously served as a the Works secretary in the ministry and as a director of the National Construction Authority, Kenya.
Ms Munano has a Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Nairobi from where she graduated in 1981 and later pursued a Master of Science in Construction Project Management.
25. Koki Mutungi- First African Boeing 787 female captain
When she was eight years old, Ms Mutungi accompanied her father, a captain, on a flight to London. It was then that she decided what she wanted to be. Shortly after high school, Ms Mutungi trained at the Kenya Flying School at the Wilson Airport and later at the
Oklahoma City Flying School in the US. In 1993, she went on to become the first female pilot at the national carrier Kenya Airways. In 2015, she led an all-female crew from the Boeing corporation assembly in South Carolina for a 15-hour flight to deliver KQ’s fourth Dreamliner aircraft at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
26.Pauline Konga- First Kenyan woman to win an Olympics medal
In 1996, she won the silver medal in the 5000m race, making her the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic medal. Ms Konga’s journey to the Olympics was a challenging one, having performed poorly at the 1990 World Cross Country Championships where she finished 125th. In 1991, during the World Cross Country Championships she made an improvement when she finished 15th.
27. Flora Mutahi- First female chairperson of Kenya Association of Manufacturers
The force behind Melvin’s Tea, and a pioneer in repackaging Kenyan tea into different exciting flavours, Ms Mutahi is an accomplished entrepreneur and CEO of Melvin Marsh International Ltd.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers was founded in 1957, but it was not until 2016, almost six decades later, that they had their first female chairperson – Ms Mutahi. She is also the vice-president of the Comesa Business Council.
28. Pamela Jelimo- First Kenyan woman to win an Olympics gold medal
One of the youngest athletes to compete for Kenya at the Olympics, Ms Jelimo made headlines in 2008 when she became the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympics gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She was only 18 years when she made history, and the first Kenyan athlete to win the Golden League jackpot.
She is also the holder of the 800m world junior record and senior African record for 800m. She is a recipient of the IAAF Revelation of the Year award and the 2008 Kenyan Sportswoman of the Year award.
29.Wanini Keriri- First woman to head a male maximum security prison
When she joined the prisons department in 1982, events such as beauty pageants in prisons were totally unheard of. Ms Keriri’s transformative leadership has introduced short courses in German and French to prisons as well as beauty pageants and creative activities such as drama and music.
In 2005, she was transferred to Shimo La Tewa maximum security prison, becoming the first woman to head such an institution. A recipient of numerous awards for her exemplary public service, Ms Keriri, currently the Nairobi prisons commander, was the recipient of the Public Servant of the Year award.
30. Shehzana Anwar- First female Kenyan archer to qualify for the Olympics
She represented Kenya at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the first female Kenyan archer to qualify for the Olympics.
This was shortly after she excelled at the 2016 African Archery Championships which secured her a place at the Olympics. Carrying the Kenyan flag at the Olympics was a big achievement for the 28-year-old Olympian who has since bowed out of the game.
32.Madaraka Express Heroines- Kenya’s first female train drivers.
33. Prof Leah Marangu- First female professor, first female VC of a private university
She was made a full professor and chairperson in the department of Home Economics at Kenyatta University in 1978, making her the first female professor in the country. A distinguished scholar, Prof Marangu was appointed the vice-chancellor of African Nazarene University in 1996, a position she holds to date, making her the longest serving VC in the country. The Fulbright scholar holds a Master of Science in Family Environment (1969) and a PhD in Home Economics (1975).
34. Dr Beth Kiratu- First Kenyan to attain a PhD in Pure Mathematics
Thirty-two-year-old Beth Kiratu has always loved mathematics, from that day in primary school when she scored 90 per cent in the subject and was awarded Sh400, enough to buy her a pair of shoes.
On December 22, 2017, Ms Kiratu was awarded a doctorate degree in Pure Mathematics, making her the only Kenyan with that qualification. When she completed high school, she was admitted to the university to study Building Economics, but later dropped it, because it lacked enough mathematics, opting for a degree in mathematics and statistics.
She holds a Master of Science in Pure Mathematics, and plans to dedicate her life to teaching mathematics.
35. Dr Rachel Masake- First female veterinary doctor
In the first year of university, everyone called Rachel “Mr Masake” because it was assumed that veterinary medicine were a preserve for men. Dr Masake was the only female student in a class of 25, graduating in 1970 to become Kenya’s first female veterinary doctor. She holds a Master’s and PhD from the Washington State University.
Dr Masake sits on the board of Maseno University College Council and works as an immunologist at the International Livestock Research Centre.