International Women’s Day: These iron women were tough as nails, never asked for bus fare
The world celebrates women’s achievements and checks on progress made in advancing gender equality and women empowerment every year on March 8.
To honour women on their special day, The Nairobian turns the spotlight on six women who challenged gender stereotypes, fought head on with male counterparts and laid the foundation for the current crop of women in leadership.
Pheobe Asiyo: The first woman elder
Pheobe was the first Kenyan woman to become a Senior Superintendent of the Kenya Prisons and thus pretty instrumental in spearheading its rehabilitation programmes, besides separating male from female prisons.
Phoebe Asiyo also became the first African woman head of the giant ‘Maendeleo ya Wanawake,’ which she later left for elective politics. She became MP for Karachuonyo in between fighting for the education of the girl child, women’s rights and gender equality.
The Chair of the Caucus for Women Leadership since 1997 also served as a member of Parliamentarians of Global Action and Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund for Women for the past 17 years.
In 2009, Phoebe Asiyo, recipient of the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya, became the first woman elder, a rarity in most of Kenya’s 42 communities, including the Ameru and their Njuri Nceke, and the Mijikenda and their Kaya.
The former Commissioner with the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission was installed as an elder according to Luo customs and traditions. That included being crowned with a ligisa (Luo traditional cap) and an orengo (flywhisk), a goat skin apron adorned with beads and sea shells and a matching skirt.
She vied and served two five-year terms: 1979- 1983 and 1992-1997, a record that has since been broken by, among others, Beth Mugo with her third stint as Dagoretti MP.
Mama Jael Condemned Kibaki to Othaya
She is credited for having politically kicked out Mwai Kibaki out of Nairobi, effectively consigning the former president to Othaya, his home constituency in Nyeri County.
That was during the 1969 General Election when women rights campaigner, Jael Mbogo - the first woman shorthand typist to join the City Council of Nairobi - almost sent a sitting cabinet minister packing in the race for Nairobi’s Bahati parliamentary seat.
Kibaki, then the Finance Minister, was behind during the early tallying, but alas! the outcome was delayed for three days, with a crack police squad swarming the polling centre.
When the verdict was announced, Britain’s The Observer newspaper termed the victory ‘a wafer-thin margin’ as Kibaki had won with 500 votes.
To avoid similar humiliation, Baba Jimmy contested the 1974 general elections in Othaya and forgot Nairobi for good.
For the mahewa generation who are still at sea, Jael Mbogo was the second national chairperson for the giant Maendeleo ya Wanawake after Phoebe Asiyo. The 1969 elections against ‘Mama Jael’ were a near mirror image of the disputed 2007 elections that led to post poll madness in which over 1,000 Kenyans perished.
According to the Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography, Jael left Kenya for the USA in the late 1950s to study economics and returned in 1963. She first worked with Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania before joining Kenya’s Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the women’s social and cultural organisation, in 1965.
Mama Jael told Wajibu magazine in 2002: “I was one of the four women...who were the first to contest for elective offices... I was a pioneer. Pioneers never reap the fruits. They lead and hand over the mantle.”
Jane Kiano was Maendeleo ya wanawake
She was the longest serving chair of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, and arguably its most successful head honcho.
For her “lifetime contribution to women empowerment,” France bestowed her with its highest individual medal: The Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honour that dates back to Napoleon in 1802.
Jane Mumbi Kiano, Kenya’s Woman of the Year in 1974, was chair of the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi - the largest of the Alliances in Africa and the top 10 best globally - for 30 years until 2012.
So influential was this former National Cohesion and Integration Commissioner that Maureen Akinyi Muleka based her MA history dissertation at the University of Nairobi on her.
In 13 years to 1984, Kiano made Maendeleo ya Wanawake, which was founded by politically connected colonial-era wives in 1952, into Kenya’s largest women’s grassroots organization.
The then Sh14.5 million Maendeleo House along Monrovia Street was also constructed during the tenure of the former teacher at Tumutumu Primary School who later proceeded to Magoto College.
Kiano joined Maendeleo in the psychedelic 1960s and became its vice chair in four years to 1971, when she trounced Nyiva Mwendwa in one of its fiercest elections.
Maendeleo ya Wanawake’s programmes in nutrition, maternal healthcare, family planning and special energy grew exponentially, not only because her tenure straddled the UN Women Decade, but also the many international funding Kiano, later chair the National Council of Women of Kenya, sourced. Jane died in 2017.
Grace Onyango, a woman of many parts
Mama Grace Onyango was the first woman Member of Parliament in post-independent Kenya, breaking the proverbial glass ceiling.
She was a teacher-turned-politician at the cusp of Uhuru, when she began overturning gender relations on its head. As the first woman councillor of Kisumu Central Ward - when there was not even a woman sweeper - Nya Bungu (daughter of the bush) taught the Kisumu Union Primary before attending council meetings after classes.
The second of nine children experienced gender discrimination first-hand since it was “no place for women,” the male chauvinists charged. To level things, she campaigned for women to be employed in an interesting fashion: If any male employee died or retired at the municipal council, the replacement was to be either the wife, sister or daughter!
The ‘woman of many parts’ left active politics when the late Dr Robert Ouko ousted her in the 1979 elections. Phoebe Atieno Musandu’s MA history thesis from Miami State University in 2006 is titled, Daughter of Odoro: Grace Onyango and the African Women’s History, in where she quotes the first ‘Iron Lady’ of politics as saying in 1989 that: “As a politician, I wanted to prove to the ‘just government of men’ that women can do as well if given the chance...which I think I did.”
Grace Onyango is now in her sunset years, minus the bodyguards and other trappings of power of yesteryears.
Priscilla Abwao: She deserved more
Few Kenyans know that Priscilla Abwao was the first woman to serve in the Legislative Council in 1961. Since Kenya does not honour its historical figures, heroes and heroines, the name of this mercurial lady is unknown even to millennial scholars of history or political science.
There is no symbol or image in Nairobi or elsewhere that has been erected to immortalise her. A quick spot-check in the streets of Nairobi or her native Kakamega can definitely draw blank faces.
Priscilla Ingasiani Abwao was born in Maragoli in 1924 and died in 2009 at the age of 85. She belonged to an outfit called the Kenya African Women’s League.
This is where you found leading women luminaries drawn from all sectors of the country. Phoebe Asiyo, Muthoni Likimani, Grace Onyango, Margaret Kenyatta and many others. The role of a woman had been relegated to the background in a traditional Kenyan male-dominated society. Few had gone to school.
The Governor was given two names for nomination to the Legislative Council. They were Priscilla Abwao, a social worker, and Margaret Kenyatta daughter to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. He picked Priscilla to be the first African woman to sit in the Legco.
She did not disappoint. She came out as a very effective crusader of women rights and empowerment. Her biggest achievement came when she organised the first ever conference of professional women in Kenya that was held in Limuru in 1962. Called the Kenya African Women Seminar, they prepared the way for inclusion of women in various opportunities that were soon to come up in the coming Africanisation of jobs.
Priscilla encouraged women to rise above all and earn their place in Kenya. The conference brought together big names like Phoebe Asiyo, who by then was a Superintendent with the Kenya Prisons. Others were Ruth Njiiri and Jemima Gecaga.
She retired in her farm in Kitale then in 2009, she died quietly in her Lavington home. With her death, Kenya lost a pioneer trailblazer who remains largely unknown.
Dr Julia Ojiambo: Tested presidential waters in 2007
Dr Julia Ojiambo: A presidential running-mate in the 2007 general elections, she was Kenya’s second woman elected MP (Funyula) in 1974. The author of Trees of Kenya (1978) is an alumnus of the University of Nairobi (education), London University (applied human nutrition), Harvard (Msc nutrition) and McGill (PhD human nutrition). She is the first woman to be appointed assistant minister (housing and social services) and is credited with developing a protein-rich biscuit used in the treatment of kwashiorkor. Dr Ojiambo was the chair of Kenya Plants Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) until 2012.