What you need to know:
These women are not household names, but they are carving out a new narrative for rural women and inspiring generations
A lot of times when we think of achievements, we look at our immediate environment. So when we talk of recognising women change makers, we often look at those in urban or peri-urban areas or those who are visible in the mainstream or social media platforms.
In the vast and often overlooked rural areas, there are women who are forging paths and breaking barriers. They are your next-door neighbours. The ones that you go to for advice or the ones leading the village “chama”.
These women are not household names, but they are carving out a new narrative for rural women and inspiring generations.
From Mombasa to Marsabit, Kericho to Kisumu, we celebrate these unsung heroes who embody the spirit of resilience, determination, and innovation.
The children’s warrior
- Mary Wamaina, 34, Trans-Nzoia County
For most of her young adult life, Mary Wamaina didn’t pay much attention to advocacy or children's rights. “It’s not that I didn’t care, but like many people, I didn’t realise how important these issues were until they directly affected my life,” she says.
Wamaina was 19, and a housewife when she delivered a child with a disability. “I was completely blindsided,” she says. “I didn’t know the challenges that persons with disabilities face. Suddenly, things changed. My husband left me.
Due to her son’s situation, she says that she developed a deep compassion for children. “I can’t stand seeing them mistreated. Then, I didn’t even understand that it had to do with the protection of their rights, I just knew that it was wrong to mistreat them.”
On a particular day in 2011, she received information about a child who was being locked up in the house as the mother went about her business. “I couldn’t wait for another day to look for the woman. When I went to see her, she told me about the many challenges she was facing as a mother to a child with special needs, many that I could relate to, and I decided to help.”
Wamaina rallied well-wishers and received immense support for the child’s medication and financial assistance. From that day on, she became the village’s contact person for children who were undergoing mistreatment of any sort. “Some people even thought that I worked for the children’s department as I worked closely with children’s officers.”
The recent case, Wamaina shares, happened two months ago. “I received a call from the police that somebody had left a seven-year-old boy with a disability at their gate. Since it was on a weekend, I stayed with the child, with the authorisation from the children's department, and with the department’s help, we found a safe place for him to live. We had tried to reunite him with his relatives via social media, but no one came forward.
If anything bad happens to a child in my village, Kiungani, members of the community reach out to me. Every time I hear that a child is going through a traumatic experience, it really burdens my heart,” offers the mother of five.
Because of her work in the community, she was recently appointed to work as a special programs officer to help children and widows in her community. “I am a huge believer in fairness and treating everyone with kindness and respect, irrespective of their age. That to me is equity,” she affirms.
(By Lilys Njeru)
Mass wedding for street families’ planner
- Lubna Nassir, 54, Mombasa County
When Lubna Nassir, 54, was growing up, her late father used to spare some of his income and feed the vulnerable in society. This propelled her journey into helping the needy and more so street children and families.
In August 2018, Lubna who is popularly known as Mama Beauty was able to do a mass wedding for three couples who live in the streets.
A month after, word had gone around in Mombasa County and many wanted her to officiate their unions. This would see her conduct mass weddings for 24 street couples.
However, the day she was officiating the unions, her son passed on and before he breathed his last, he encouraged her to keep helping the vulnerable and be strong while at it.
“Children born out of wedlock are often side-lined. That is why when we do weddings. We hold the wedding yearly, some weeks to Ramadhan with this year being on March 15, 2023,” Lubna explains.
Lubna says that lack of finances is the biggest impediment to helping the needy. With no sponsors, Lubna posts the needs of the street families on social media and occasionally receives donations.
Be it as it may, Lubna gets a fair share of positive and negative comments from people. While some encourage her to keep on moving, others say she is showing off and using the needy to her advantage.
Though she helps, she admits that a good number of street people go back to the streets even after helping them start up a business. On the flip side, there are those who stick through and become successful something that Lubna takes pride in. According to Mama Beauty, embracing equity is about giving more opportunities to women as they have so many responsibilities.
(By Wangu Kanuri)
The 90-year-old who takes pride in giving
- Elvina Mutua, 90, Kilifi County
90-year-old Elvina Mutua, has always been at the forefront of giving her colleagues and employees opportunities. Elvina admits that she is not egocentric and that empowering women has been her life’s purpose.
This spirit never died in her even after she retired in 1994. Elvina notes that when she relocated to Mtwapa, Mombasa she was touched by how women and their children were struggling in the slums.
She then came up with Zarino Community-Based Organisation which helps vulnerable children access education. Starting with providing food, paying fees, and buying uniforms and books, Elvina would ask for help from friends she had networked with in her working life.
“For the women and caregivers of these children, I teach them table banking, how they can save, take loans so that they can take care of their children,” she explains.
Elvina notes that maintaining good relations with people has given her the stamina to continue. However, the work is not without a challenge and she notes that with the economy continuing to bite hard, she has ceased giving food to the children.
“Lack of finances to pay school fees is very disheartening,” she says.
Elvina says that she has educated some children who have become very successful something she takes delight in. This gives her satisfaction despite the challenges.
The lover of development in society, Elvina notes that women and children are the most affected when regions are not developed.
To her, embracing equity is for a woman to be able to take charge of her life more so financially.
“As a woman, if you are independent, and have your own money, then even the man who marries you will respect you more,” she says.
(By Wangu Kanuri)
The disabled woman arming others with information
- Beatrice Juma, 48, Busia County
For Beatrice Juma, her life’s path in helping society began when she was segregated due to her partial poliomyelitis disability. Beatrice who hails from Busia and serves three sub-counties, says that she founded Smile Woman for Africa, an organisation that empowers women economically. Further, Beatrice campaigns against child abuse and gender-based violence.
With over 70 groups categorised into women, youth, and people living with disabilities (PWDs), Beatrice notes that both she and her team trains the group on table banking, poultry, and crop farming.
“I became weighed down because I was stigmatised because of my own disabilities,” she shares.
This would then lead to the birth of her own organisation. Beatrice takes pleasure in the growth of the lives of the women and PWDs some of whom can chip in on their family needs. “In October 2020, the then County Commissioner awarded me on Hero’s Day. This was after community members nominated my organisation. This was a pat on my back,” she notes.
While her organisation is voluntary, Beatrice says that the lack of funding to boost the businesses is the biggest challenge they are facing.
(By Wangu Kanuri)
The charitable woman
- Betty Tanui, 57, Kericho County
Betty Tanui, 57, a tea farmer in Kericho, describes herself as a compassionate person who has a soft spot for women and children.
She believes that women are at the core of growth in a family. This has seen her employ some while donating foodstuff to them. With over 20 years of doing charity, Betty, a staunch Christian says that it is commanded for believers to help.
Living in an area where most families are on the borderline of poverty, Betty explains that in many families, women and their children work tirelessly at tea plantations but the man pockets the money.
“You will find someone toiled but has no money because the produce is in the man’s name. Other times, the woman does odd jobs but the man will still demand the money,” she explains.
This has resulted in some of them being so demotivated with others even leaving their marital homes. They end up begging for help.
With money being at the heart of family disputes, Betty shares that some end up being lazy saying there is no value in hard work. She says that her heart bleeds for these women who need to be empowered and counselled.
“I’m motivated when these women are able to put some extra cash for themselves and in turn, they help their children become successful in the long run,” she notes.
Though she has no organisation, Betty says that being rooted in the church has given her an avenue to help and reach out to many women.
“When a woman is emboldened, she is able to stand on her ground and have a say in the family set-up,” she opines.
(By Wangu Kanuri)
The HIV/ Aids advocate
- Benta Ndeda, 50s, Kisumu County
Loss. That’s the one word Benta says of what her community experienced. In the 2,000s, many of Benta’s relatives and friends were dying of HIV& Aids. “It was very rampant,” she chimes.
The loss of her two brothers, who died almost at the same time, was her awakening to becoming a vocal and passionate advocate for HIV prevention and testing. “I started by encouraging members of the community to get tested and shared personal experiences that many could relate to. With some members of my clan, we formed a self-group in 2005 and registered it as a community-based organisation in 2010.
“The CBO empowers the community in areas of development such as education, food security, mentorship for girls, and community volunteer work,” she offers. Before forming the group, Aniga did a lot of outreach activities reaching out to the youth and appealing to different quarters to know about their HIV status. “Those found HIV+ were grouped and offered counselling. I am a professional counselling psychologist,” she says.
Members of the community who were not part of her clan in West Seme, Kisumu County, started to show interest and as the inquiries grew, the organisation expanded and even formed a board that would oversee its operations.
“That’s when we started talking about kitchen gardens and Aniga women initiative took off. Here, we are surrounded by beaches and we realised that women were falling prey to sexual predators due to lack of food. To kick out HIV& Aids, we had to look for ways to alleviate poverty,” she says.
Over time, Benta’s advocacy work has grown and expanded. Recently, she led her community in raising funds to construct a library in Okuto village through the support of Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF). “I am happy to see the progress we have made as a community. For me, embracing equity is about everyone getting the support they need to enable them to excel and reach their full potential.”
(By Lilys Njeru)
The anti-FGM campaigner
- Nastehe Aftin, 37, Tana River County
Nastehe Aftin has paid the full price of a female genital mutilation activist. Scornful comments, rejection, mockery, and physical abuse have left her stronger in her quest to liberate her community from the barbaric tradition. The cut caused her a disability that fueled her desire to end the cut in the Wardei Community, Tana River County.
"I was 10 years old when I was circumcised, and during the healing process, abandoned in a hut and bound, I fell and suffered a dislocation in my limb that was not addressed," she narrated. The dislocation left her limping and became a core reason for her campaign against the cut.
According to Ms Aftin, the cut defined and shaped her future and current stand, for it made her understand the extra pain that comes with the blade.
"At 16, I had already started attending forums that talked about gender-based violence, and It was there that I learned that FGM was not a traditional rite of passage but an act of GBV," she says.
At 24, when she was old enough to fend for herself, she raised her voice against the cut and made a public declaration that she was against the tradition.
"I made enemies from that day, relatives hated me and so did elders, but a handful supported me and that encouraged me to keep going," she says. She has since founded a community-based organisation, Dayaa Women Group that champions anti-FGM and inspires women to boldly tell their stories regarding the cut and its effects that are unknown to the men.
Her dream is to ensure that all traditional circumcisers are economically empowered so that they can cope after abandoning the practice.
"Some of them do it for money and that is why it is somewhat difficult to end the practice. I hope to end it from the roots,” she says.
(By Stephen Oduor)