International Women's Day: 7 Outstanding Kenyan Women Who Broke Barriers

  • In 1914, International Women's Day was held on March 8 in Germany, possibly because that day was a Sunday, ever since, it has always been held on the same date globally.

    Back then, the observance of the Day in Germany was dedicated to women's right to vote. Women have grown in leaps and bounds going on to achieve remarkable fetes.

    There have been countless Kenyan women who have left, and are leaving a mark in the country’s rich history.

    Here are seven of such women who laid the very foundations that the current crop of women leaders and influencers have been building on.

    Grace Onyango

    Dr Grace Onyango or Nyar Bungu, as her many admirers call her, is a woman of many firsts. The original iron lady was the first Kenyan woman mayor when she was elected in Kisumu in 1965, a position she used to fight for women’s place in leadership and politics.

    Four years later, she became the first woman to be elected MP for Kisumu Town, at a time when male competitors had created a hostile environment and public abuses were tolerated, as the woman’s role had been confined to the kitchen.

    She was also the first woman Secretary-General of Luo Union (East Africa) and the first woman councillor of Kaloleni ward in Kisumu, where she worked with current Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o’s, father who was chaplain at the council.

    Grace was very vocal and skilled during assembly debates where she formed the minority but still stood out against 158 male counterparts.

    Charity Ngilu

    Famously christened Mama Ngilu, the current Kitui county governor changed the game in 1997, when she scratched at the highest and hardest of glass ceilings, by becoming Kenya’s first female presidential candidate.

    Though she came in fourth, she left an indelible mark on the political landscape.

    She was roughed up by riot police, teargassed by officers breaking up opposition rallies, and her convoy stoned while she was campaigning.

    The Kitui county governor delved into active politics back in 1992, when she was elected to parliament in Kenya's second multi-party elections since independence in 1963.

    She served as Minister for Health from 2003 to 2007, Minister for Water and Irrigation from April 2008 to 2013 and Cabinet Secretary for Land, Housing and Urban Development from 2013 to 2015.

    Ngilu has been known for always finding a way to re-invent herself, which could explain how she found herself among the first crop of female governors in the country in 2017, with a career spanning over two decades.

    Professor Wangari Maathai

    The Late Nyeri native warrants little introduction. A founding member of the green belt movement, Wangari Maathai rose to become a global icon at a time when most women were shackled under cultural constraints.

    Mathaai was also a woman of many firsts over the course of her inspirational life.

    She was the first woman in Kenya and Africa to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 as well as the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD in 1971.

    The Nobel Laureate was also part of the presidential candidates during the 1997 General Election, on a Liberal Party of Kenya ticket.

    In the December 2002 election, she won the Tetu constituency parliamentary seat, leading to her appointment as the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.

    The environmental conservationist was beaten and arrested numerous times. One of her most famous actions being in 1989, when she staged a protest in Nairobi's Uhuru Park to prevent the construction of a skyscraper.

    The place in the park where she demonstrated was christened "Freedom Corner."

    As one of the original members of the feminist movement in Kenya, Maathai served as the chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) from 1981-87.

    Nyiva Mwendwa

    The veteran politician has several notches on her belt as a pioneer in the realm of women leaders in Kenya.

    Nyiva was the first woman to serve as Cabinet Minister, during her tenure as the Minister of Culture and Social Services in the Moi government.

    She was also elected as Kitui West Constituency Member of Parliament in 1972, 1992 and 2002 general elections.

    The vocal Ukambani stalwart, made a political comeback when she successfully contested the Kitui Woman Representative position in the 2013 General Election.

    As the widow to the first African Chief Justice, the late Kitili Maluki Mwendwa, she caused several controversies during her heydays, with her decision to bring along her hairdresser as part of her delegation in 1995 for a women's conference held in Beijing.

    She cited her need to look good as a leader as her reason for bringing the hair stylist along.

    Martha Wangari Karua

    The Kirinyaga-born leader has also been referred to as the iron lady and warrants little introduction.

    She was the first Minister to resign voluntarily since 2003, citing frustrations in discharging her duties, as her primary reason.

    Appointed as a magistrate at the tender age of 24, she went on to consistently demonstrate keen and just discernment in her rulings.

    Ms Karua quit the bench to defend human rights activists such as political dissident Koigi Wamwere, during the Moi regime, a period where standing up against the government was considered both career and literal suicide.

    She was a key member of the opposition movements that incessantly pushed for the reintroduction of multi-party democracy in Kenya during the early 90s.

    The no-nonsense leader won the 1992 parliamentary election and became Gichugu constituency MP, making her the first woman lawyer to be popularly elected to Parliament.

    Until April 6, 2009, she served as Minister of Justice, National Cohesion & Constitutional Affairs. She also previously served as the Minister of Water Resources Management & Development and was behind the implementation of the Water Act 2002, which has been credited for the acceleration of the pace of water reforms and service provision in Kenya.

    During the 2013 elections, the iron lady defied all the odds to stand for the presidency despite the numerous calls from certain leaders to step aside for the highly favoured Uhuru Kenyatta.

    Phoebe Asiyo

    The former parliamentarian holds the distinction of being one of the longest-serving women in parliament in Kenya (8 non-consecutive years).

    Popularly known as Mama Asiyo, she served as the United Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) ambassador from 1988 to 1992.

    The highly respected leader made history when she was elevated to the position of Luo elder for her efforts to promote education for girls, women’s rights and gender equality in Kenya, becoming the first woman to hold such a title.

    Mama Asiyo dedicated her life to bettering the role of women and girls in the country and currently serves as chair of the Caucus for Women’s Leadership, where she leads and teaches young women and advocates for women in leadership roles and skills.

    Mary Elizabeth Okello

    This titan in the women leadership arena may be famous due to her connection to Makini School, however, she is yet another lady of many firsts and effectively cleared the path for future women leaders.

    A sister to the seasoned politician, Moody Awori, Ms Okello became the first woman bank manager in Kenya in 1977.

    She was also the first African representative to the World Women Banking Organization in 1985 and founding member of the Kenya Women's Finance Trust.

    Ms Okello dedicated herself to advocating for the financial strengthening of women.

    As an elder of the Moran Order of the Burning Spear, she continues to mentor and inspire women across Africa.

    So there you have it, seven women who painstakingly laid the foundations for the current breed of highly influential women leaders who are blazing trails of their own.

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