Women have proved their mettle in seemingly turbulent terrain

The two-thirds gender rule has elicited heated debate across the country. Although affirmative action can be emotive for some, Kenya’s five decades of independence show that women, have fought for and risen to positions traditionally seen as belonging to men.

Among the most recognisable was Grace Ogot, who was appointed to Parliament in 1983 and subsequently elected in 1985. She was later to serve as Assistant minister of Culture and Social Services under former President Daniel Moi.

At that time, she was the only woman to hold a Cabinet post. Her contributions also traversed the Legislature, with notable contributions in health and literature. Ogot was the first woman to have fiction published by the East African Publishing House. She died in March this year.

A contemporary of Ogot, the deceptively small yet big hearted Julia Ojiambo also crossed through treacherous cultural boundaries at a time when it was taboo for women to even consider holding posts that would mean men answer to them. Ojiambo served in Parliament as the first elected woman in 1974.

She was to serve her Funyula constituency for several other terms. In 1980, she was among the team that successfully negotiated for establishment of the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) with the support of the Danish government. Ojiambo is also among the first women to form and lead a political party and declare her interest in the presidency. She currently sits on several boards and is the chair of the Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute.

The 1974 national elections were a heated affair. Candidates vying for the numerous seats had a lot to contend with. Top on the list was the individual’s allegiance to the President, then the state and finally the ruling party, Kanu. As elections were declared, a firebrand 24-year-old Kalenjin woman thought it was her time to lead. She vied, and won a seat in a crowded field of 11 contestants.

With that, Chelagat Mutai became the first woman MP for Eldoret North. However, her outspoken nature and radical approach entangled her in the crosshairs of the then political elite. She often found herself on the defence against an intolerant ruling class, leading her to a three-year exile in Tanzania. She died in 2013 after a lifetime of outspokenness and courage.

Global accolades

As the years rolled, women who had been at the forefront of activism and social justice slowly began to get the recognition they deserved. And in 2004, a Kenyan woman got one of the highest global accolades. After years of rooting for social justice, Prof Wangari Maathai was named that year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her decades of dedication and fight for the improvement and protection of the environment her pitted her against consecutive governments. Prof Maathai was acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation.

Prof Maathai represented Tetu constituency in Parliament (2002–2007), and served as Assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the Ninth parliament (2003–2007).

In the Judiciary, women continue to make their mark. Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch is known among her peers for her relentless work on the formation and recognition of the rights of children in conflict zones. Aluoch, currently serving as the first vice-president of the International Criminal Court, served as a judge in the High Court for more than 20 years before moving to the Court of Appeal in 2008. She is also an advocate of the High Court of Kenya.

Special missions undertaken by Judge Aluoch include negotiations entered into on behalf of the African Union with the government of Sudan to ratify the African charter to secure the rights of children, and a fact-finding mission to war-torn northern Uganda to report on the effects of the war on children.

That same year, another leading light emerged. Nominated to Parliament after a life in legal services, Njoki Ndung’u was one of the few voices of reason in the then Parliament. Her most notable contribution in the House and to society was her relentless lobbying and final publication of amendments to the Amendments on Maternity and Paternity Rights in Employment Act of 2007 and the Sexual Offences Act 2006.

Her Bill sought to address the rising problem of rape and sexual assaults in the Kenya by introducing a comprehensive law reform with regard to rape and sexual assault. The law introduced stiffer and enhanced penalties for offenders.

Major frontiers

Many women have also played a crucial role on matters education. Every day, selfless mothers continue to single handedly put their children in school through unimaginable sacrifices. Others, with means have contributed to establishment of centres of excellence that continue to chart new paths and explore new frontiers in education. Mary Okello of Makini Group of Schools was a key a pioneer in the private education sector.

Through her and others like her, the education space in Kenya continues to be liberalised. Patriarchal walls in media continue to be broken by the rise of female practitioners. The onset of FM stations saw the monopoly held by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation crumble.

From the flakes rose a new crop of female radio presenters who continue to be trendsetters. This includes Carol Mutoko, who has deservedly morphed into authorities in broadcast. In television, Beatrice Marshall and Catherine Kasavuli rose to become veritable legends in their fields.

Lupita feat

The arts too have their femme fatales to celebrate. In 2013, Lupita Nyong’o won the much coveted Academy Award for her portrayal in Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years A Slave. She was perhaps testimony to the talent possessed by thousands of others in the arts who walked the stage before her and who will continue to perform for audiences after her stage exit.

Others behind the camera include Judy Kibinge and Njeri Kirago who have had long standing partnership in film that has led to a string of acclaims from the film world. Among their most famous collaboration is their movie Project Daddy.

The two have also received numerous solo accolades as film directors and producers. The 1990s saw Nazizi Hirji take on the field in a new male dominated form of music in Kenya. As the famed trio of Kalamashaka caused shockwaves, she bloomed to be counted among the pioneers of this music form.

Together with others, she is responsible for the subsequent popularity that Kenyan rap music has enjoyed over the years. Nearly two decades after first putting mouth to mic, Nazizi is still at it.