Karua’s rise is a historic crown for Kenyan women 

Azimio running mate Martha Karua.

Azimio running mate Martha Karua delivers a speech during the rally on the final day of campaigning at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on August 6, 2022.

Photo credit: Tony Karumba | AFP

What you need to know:

  • There is a sliver of hope that Karua will break the glass ceiling and open the presidency to women.
  • Millions of her supporters and all progressive forces have dared to dream of a female Deputy President, the first one in Kenya’s history.

On Tuesday, August 9, Kenyans have a chance to endorse one of the country’s most progressive reformists, uncompromising lawyer and lawmaker, Martha Karua, as Deputy President to Raila Odinga.

Karua stands a good chance to become the second most powerful Kenyan.

Her namesake friend and comrade in the trenches, Martha Koome, is already heading the judiciary as Chief Justice.

If the August 9 General Election goes the Raila-Karua way, the Narc-Kenya leader will be catapulted to within a touching distance of the presidency, strategically placing her just a heartbeat from State House.

Millions of her supporters and all progressive forces have dared to dream of a female Deputy President, the first one in Kenya’s history.

This accomplished lawyer is also a former Justice and Water minister as well as MP for Gichugu, which she represented for over 20 years. She was a magistrate from 1981 to 1987, when she ventured into private practice.

During Kenya’s darkest hour under the authoritarian Kanu regime, she stuck her neck out by representing Mr Odinga, who was accused of plotting to topple the government.

Standing on the shoulders of giants and pioneers, Karua’s journey mirrors those of her sisters before.

These are the real mothers of the nation who challenged the status quo, sacrificing their safety and comfort. A number of them paid the ultimate price for this country’s liberation.

Her story is entwined with those of founders who shattered the myth that the Kenyan woman was not meant to be heard or seen in public affairs.

Indelible imprints 

Today, her footsteps mirror those of her compatriots, whose footfalls continue to echo along the pathway of history, leaving indelible imprints along the route as beacons for their successors.

Their contributions, however, are rarely acknowledged and have mostly been dismissed as mere endnotes in Kenya’s liberation narrative.

The struggle to break the yoke of oppression has been painstakingly long.

The journey has been particularly torturous for the Kenyan woman, who has been shackled by societal stereotypes that traditionally projected a woman as a source of free labour, a childbearing machine and an object for pleasure.

How else can one explain the scant attention afforded to the icons Moraa wa Ngiti, Mekatiliti wa Menza, and Muthoni Nyanjiru, the pioneer freedom fighters who mobilised our people to resist the British?

Those pioneer freedom fighters could not be silenced, and neither could the flames of freedom they had lit be extinguished.

After the colonial government entrenched itself, it made regulations that simply made life unbearable for women.

While men were recruited to work as domestic workers for peanuts, their wives and children were treated as part of the package and were forced to work without any pay.

The settlers and their farm supervisors often exploited women sexually, leading to numerous complaints.

When the colonial authorities declared a state of emergency in October 1952 to respond to violent protests by Africans agitating for freedom, a fresh wave of violence was unleashed on women.

The suffering of the Kenyan woman in this tumultuous period is best personified by Wambui-Waiyaki Otieno.

After Wambui was denied an opportunity to study abroad by the government, she ran away from home in 1954 and joined the freedom fighters, spying on the troops and passing on secrets to her comrades.

She was arrested and locked up in a detention camp in Lamu.

Here, Wambui would later reveal how she was raped by a white government agent in 1960 who impregnated her.

Her case against the colonial government was thrown out. She struck a blow for widows in 1987 when she challenged traditional cultural practices that relegated women to the periphery when her husband died.

In her epic case, Wambui was fighting for her right to bury her husband, S.M Otieno, at their home in Ngong.

The Umira Kager clan, however, insisted that the city lawyer had to be buried in his ancestral home in Nyalgunga.

Though she lost the case, she helped shine the spotlight on customs that disenfranchised women.

Another leader who tested Kenya’s readiness to elect a woman was Jael Mbogo, a pioneer African shorthand typist who worked for the City Council of Nairobi.

When she contested the Bahati parliamentary seat in 1969, she caused a huge scare by almost unseating then Cabinet minister Mwai Kibaki in an election whose results were delayed for three days.

Ultimately, Kibaki won with a mere 500 votes and to date, Mbogo believes her victory was stolen.

Kibaki shifted his political base in 1974 to Othaya, forever forsaking the city parliamentary politics up to the time he retired in 2012.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements by a Kenyan woman was that of Wangari Muta Maathai, who was hailed as the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree.

She too faced a lot of discrimination at the University of Nairobi and later in the political scene. 

Nobel Peace Prize

Mathai became the first woman in Africa to bag the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for her work in conserving the environment. In 1997, when the Green Belt Movement founder contested the presidency, she was rejected by Kenyans.

Kenya’s past is littered with iconic women who were jailed or had to flee their homes and country.

An example is Mutai Chelagat, who dared challenge the status quo.

She made history in 1974 when she was elected as Nandi MP at only 24 years.

She became a thorn in the government’s flesh and was arrested and jailed. She fled the country and suffered greatly for criticising the government.

The country has not been very charitable in removing obstacles standing in the path of women’s leadership.

As voters go to the polls on August 9, perhaps Kenyans will finally demand that the two-thirds gender rule is finally implemented.

There is a sliver of hope that Karua will break the glass ceiling and open the presidency to women, and shepherd the country to its promised land.

Mr Mwangi is a human rights defender based in Nairobi.


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