Is Maendeleo ya Wanawake still relevant for women today?

Chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation Mrs Rahab Mwikali Muiu at a board retreat for the MYWO at Sagana on October 29, 2021. [File Standard]

Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO) has a rich history advocating for women in Kenyan society but, as it marks its 70 years of existence, the organisation is at a crossroads navigating its past and the needs of women in the 21st century.

Nominated MCA Lucy Ngugi, 35, is the Muranga County chairperson for MYWO and the youngest to have this position.

She is the youngest chairperson to take office and stands out among her colleagues who have been in the organisation for decades.

Ngugi joined the organisation in 2016, because it was active in her home village but had not heard about it before.

“This is the first organisation that instilled in me the confidence to articulate issues and become a leader, the level of campaigns for leadership positions inside MYWO is highly competitive,” she says.

She learned how to lobby and campaign for her current position, and received mentorship on how to mobilise and create networks of women in the wards and villages,

“The mentorship I have received in this organisation is unrivaled, there is a wealth of experience in the ranks of Maendeleo that can benefit many young women in the country,” Ngugi says.

Ngugi believes there is hope for the organisation if they can find ways to adapt to the current social and economic climate, and address the needs of young women.

But she admitted there was a huge gap in connecting the wealth of knowledge of the older women to younger women interested in leadership and politics.

“So many women right now are, on their own, trying to navigate the political arena which is still male-dominated with very little understanding of what it takes. If they could benefit from the mentorship of these women in MYWO they would have the tools to succeed,” she says.

She pointed out that the organisation was still finding its footing after it staggered and stepped out of the limelight due to internal wrangles that affected its leadership for about seven years.

Ngugi was referring to vicious property dispute in 2015 that plunged the MYWO into crisis and nearly paralysed its operations.

By the time the row was resolved close to decade later, the leadership, under the stewardship of Mrs Rahab Mwikali Muiu, had to pick up the pieces.

Like the giant in Jonathan Swift's story ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ who took a nap on a beach only to wake up in the land of Lilliput, MYWO awoke to find itself in a world where women had new ways to network, mobilise and technology had changed how they communicate, work, and socialise. 

For women such as Njoki Kungu, 23, MYWO is an unknown entity she has no interest in, despite being an active campus student leader and ambitious political aspirant.

“I have heard of that organisation but it’s for very old people, I am not a member and I do not know much about it,” she explained.

According to Njoki, MYWO is an organisation long past its prime and out of touch with young women in the political space.

“I think it is perceived as a political organisation for more established women, and as for membership, I think it was mostly for our grandmothers, back in the 1980’s now I feel it doesn’t connect with me,” she noted.

Her sentiments and perception of the organisation is one of the challenges Maendeleo has to navigate, in staying relevant to a new generation of women.

MYWO started out as a women welfare association during the colonial era, set up by the British Governors' wives to improve the welfare of women in the country in 1955.

At the time, the population and dynamics of social life for Kenyan women dictated that the women relied heavily on the organisation as a network of support for social and economic empowerment.

According to its website, MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independent government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development.

The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987.

A 50th-anniversary souvenir issue magazine, Maendeleo, published by MYWO, termed this era as the dark ages for the organisation when the government started to exert pressure on the leaders.

“Most donors disenchanted by the move withdrew most of their programme financing countrywide. After the affiliation MYWO had moved from the status of the most revered independent women organisation to a mere party organ of the ruling party! The net effect of this era is felt to date,” the magazine reads.

However, the organisation leadership remained a platform for some of the most influential women in Kenyan history with women like Jane Kiano, Dr Julia Ojiambo, Rosebella Mudavadi, Mary Kaparo and more recently, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu, Senator Zipporah Kittony who is also the current patron.

Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization leaders with President Daniel Arap Moi at State House Nairobi in July 1990. [File, Standard]

Majority of these women started volunteering as young women and grew within the ranks of the organisation to be leaders in their own right.

This is a sharp contrast to the current situation where the number of women under 35 in the organisation is negligible with the majority of the active members over their 50s.

An observastion that Ms Kittony has also noted, that today women have different ways of networking and communication that MYWO can tap into.

“Thanks to technology women are more informed and can create their own networks as they communicate with each other,” she noted.

However, according to Ms Kittony, the values that the organisation stands for are their strength and the missing link in today’s society.

“The missing link between the past and present women is that there is need to mentor youth to uphold the values that we stand for which is integrity, equality and empowerment,” she noted.

She said she was hopeful the current leadership would reach out to the younger women and help to get them on the right track in an effort to nurture them in leadership.

“We (MYWO) now must include interventions such as addressing gender-based violence, the growing rates of murders within families, this is possible for an organsiation that deep values as Maendeleo,” she warned.

Ms Kittony said the organisation had already stood the test of time and had the capacity to survive another 70 years if it focused on addressing the challenges facing women.

MYWO Chairperson Rahab Mwikali Muiu said the organisation played a crucial role in making advancements in health care, such as maternity and contraception for women.

And could still lead the charge to address the challenges women were facing today such as teenage pregnancy, fistula, and the growing number of street families.

“We still have work to do today that can help us stop the vicious cycle of poverty that so many teenage mothers find themselves in when they fall pregnant,” she said.

Ms Muiu said the organisation was focused on both girl and boy child empowerment which she noted is the key to addressing the increased family strife witnessed in the country.

She said, the organsiation was still relevant because the challenges affecting women were the same across the country, and MYWO speaks for all women not just its members.

"I agree a lot has changed from the days Maendeleo was started, but the core values and challenges facing women are the same, whether they are in a boardroom or mama mboga, they want access to more opportunities to provide for their families," she noted.

Waruguru wa Kiai is not a member but noted the organisation should invest in reaching out to the young women to offer them mentorship noting this is a strength the organisation should capitalise on.

“I believe the young women interested in leadership and politics lack mentorship and MYWO have a wealth of experience they could share,” she noted.

Waithera wa Maruru, at 31, is a young member of the MYWO and admitted the bureaucracy within the organisation is one of the reasons youth are unwilling to join or participate.

“I joined in 2015, but haven’t been active because there are no activities or engagement from MYWO. For instance, since I joined I have only been called for one meeting back in 2018, since then radio silence,” wa Maruru observed.

She said they don’t have space for young women and, except for a few older members who keep in touch with the young women, most of the MYWO keep to themselves.

"It was big political force in the 1980s, and this history is a strength but for today women who are focused on their social and economic mobility and networks may not necessarily engage MYWO or fit in,” she noted.

Maruru lamented the fact majority of the women in the ranks of Maendeleo were over 45 years of age and for one to be successful within the ranks, you have to wait several years.

On the future, Maruru says the organisation is too big to fail and has potential to be the driving force for political empowerment for women but only if they recruit younger members.

“When I joined in 2015, none of my friends were members but today I have a few acquaintances who have some interest in it, especially those who are interested in politics,” she says.

Maruru says she is hopeful that, if MYWO could embrace youthful members, it could instill the right values in future women leaders helping them attain power and influence like their predecessors did on the podiums of MYWO.