Female power

Kenya at 60: Women who lead

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Kenya at 60

By Rachel Ombaka

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Posted on August 9, 2023 12:47

 © Women leaders who have contributed to building Kenya (montage: Rachel Ombaka)
Women leaders who have contributed to building Kenya (montage: Rachel Ombaka)

As Kenya marks 60 years of independence this year, we take a look at 10 trailblazing women who have made a mark in the country’s political, judicial, environmental, business, academic and sports arenas.

Kenya may seem to have always been on a bumpy ride when it comes to gender parity. However, the contribution of notable Kenyan women to the country’s history remains pivotal. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but gives a glimpse into the integral role that women have played in different sectors over the last six decades:

1.Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima – Freedom fighter

© Muthoni Wa Kirima (National Museum & Kenya National Archives)

Kirima was a top-ranking female fighter during Kenya’s struggle for independence from British colonialists. She became a spy for Mau Mau fighters in her 20s and is one of the few women who actively took part in the war.

The ‘Weaver Bird’ – a nickname the late Dedan Kimathi gave her because of her knack for weaving brilliant strategies – endured beatings and torture from the British. She followed her husband, Mutungi Gichuhi, to the forest and stayed there even after Kenya gained independence in 1963 because the Mau Mau were outlawed. She died on 5 September 2023.

2. Justice Joyce Aluoch – Former Judge and First Vice President of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague

© Justice Joyce Aluoch ICJ Kenya (©ICC-CPI)

Aluoch, 75, was the first Kenyan judge to serve at the ICC. She is a former judge of the High Court of Kenya, first chairperson of the Committee of African Union Experts on Rights and Welfare of the Child, and vice chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. She was integral in negotiations between the AU and the government of Sudan to ratify the African Charter and chaired a task force on sexual offences in Kenya.

She has bagged presidential awards, including Elder of the Burning Spear, First Class Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear, and Trail Blazer Award.

3. Dr Paula Kahumbu – Wildlife conservationist

© Paula Kahumbu (Twitter/Paula Kahumbu)

Kahumbu, 57, is the executive director of Wildlife Direct, a non-profit wildlife conservation organisation that campaigns to save Africa’s unique wildlife. As one of Kenya’s most influential conservation voices, she launched the #HandsOffOurElephants campaign with then-first lady Margaret Kenyatta in 2013.

Her work in tackling poaching and ivory trafficking has led to awards such as the Whitley Award (2014), Brand Kenya ambassador (2013), the presidential award Order of the Grand Warrior (2013), winner of the National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation (2011) and the National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2011). She has written several books, such as Secrets of the Elephants. 

4. Catherine Gicheru – Director, Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP)

© Catherine Gicheru ( Twitter/Media Council of Kenya)

Gicheru established AWJP in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing together female journalists and data analysts to produce data-driven stories.

During her Fellowship at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), she also led a pan-African women’s data journalism network, WanaData (daughters of data in Swahili). Gicheru is also the co-founder of PesaCheck, a fact-checking initiative, founding editor of the Star newspaper in Nairobi and the first female news editor at Nation Media Group.

She is a recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award and the Media Council of Kenya’s Lifetime Contribution in Journalism Award.

5. Wanjiku Kabira – Literature scholar

© Wanjiku Kabira (University of Nairobi website)

Kabira, 74, is the founder of the University of Nairobi’s African Women’s Studies Centre and former chairperson of the Women Enterprise Fund Advisory Board.

Between 2000 and 2005, she was vice chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission. The renowned professor has also published several books on literature, women and gender, including Time for Harvest: Women and Constitution Making in Kenya and A Letter to Mariama Ba, which was in response to So Long a Letter by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ. Kabira was awarded the Order of the Burning Spear, Chief of the Burning Spear (CBS) in 2018.

6. Jane Karuku – CEO of East African Breweries Limited (EABL)

© Jane Karuku (East African Breweries website)

Karuku is one of Africa’s top 10 female CEOs, according to Business Chief’s April 2023 ranking. As the first female chief executive in EABL’s 100-year history, she steered the company through the headwinds of the Covid-19 pandemic to a 15% year-on-year growth from Sh75bn ($523m) in 2020 to Sh86bn.

During the same period, she served as chairperson of the government’s Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund. With 25 years of experience in FMCG and non-profit organisations, Karuku is also a former chairperson of the Kenya Vision 2030 Delivery Board and former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). 

 7. Julia Ojiambo – politician, academic, researcher, and gender equality activist

© Julia Ojiambo (University of Nairobi website)

Ojiambo, 87, is a woman of vast talent and many firsts: She was the first Kenyan woman to be enrolled at Harvard University; the first Kenyan woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi (UoN); the first African woman to be appointed lecturer at UoN and the first African woman to be appointed minister after independence.

The author of Trees of Kenya (1978) is credited with developing a protein-rich biscuit used in the treatment of kwashiorkor, a disease marked by severe protein malnutrition and bilateral extremity swelling. Presidential awards include Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear; Elder of the Burning Spear, and Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear.

8. Martha Koome – Chief Justice

© Martha Koome (Twitter/ Martha Koome)

Koome, 63, is the first woman to hold the position of Chief Justice since the Kenyan Judiciary was established more than 100 years ago. In the 1990s, she defended opponents of then-president Daniel Moi who were against the one-party rule or were persecuted for politically motivated offences.

She was part of the campaign to repeal Section 2A of the Constitution, which converted Kenya into a multi-party democracy and introduced term limits for the presidency. She is a founding member of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), partnering with civil rights organisations to secure women’s participation in the constitutional review process.

9. Catherine Ndereba – marathon legend

© Catherine Ndereba wins the marathon competition at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, 2007. (Gero Breloer)

Ndereba, 50, also known as ‘Catherine the Great’, is a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon. She is the only woman in the world to have accomplished this feat in the marathon, which marked its 127th edition this year.

She was the first Kenyan woman to win the 2001 Boston marathon, a performance that The Independent described as “a staggering feat of speed endurance, many would argue the greatest athletic performance of all time by a woman”.

Ndereba is also a two-time winner of the Chicago Marathon and won gold at the World Championships in Paris (2003) and Osaka (2007).

10. Nasim Devji – CEO, Diamond Trust Bank (DTB)

© Nasim Devji (Diamond Trust Bank website)

Devji is one of only five female CEOs of a commercial bank in Kenya. She was appointed in 2001, which makes her the longest-serving female CEO of a publicly listed company in Kenya, having served at the helm of the bank for 22 years. She was also the first female Vice Chairperson of the Kenya Bankers Association.

She joined DTB in 1996 as the regional co-ordinator-cum-financial controller before rising up the ranks. She was recognised as the Leading African Woman in Business of the Year (2010), CEO of the Year (2011 and 2014) and listed in the top 100 women CEOs in Africa (2021).

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