Vivian Onano is on top of the world at only 24

“My name is Vivian Onano. I am a Kenyan,” she announced to the audience, before delving into a seminal speech that highlighted the struggles of women and the youth in the 21st Century. PHOTO| COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • It would be incorrect to say that Vivian had never in her wildest dreams imagined that she would be on the world stage because hers has been a life defined by dreams; the more outrageous, the better. She just never thought that it would come so early, at the age of 24.

On May 29, a young Kenyan woman stood before a special sitting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and gave the keynote speech.

In the audience were UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the acting President of the General Assembly Alvaro José de Mendonça e Moura and representatives from all member states.

The sitting was convened to assess progress made 20 years after the General Assembly adopted the World Programme of Action for Youth.

“My name is Vivian Onano. I am a Kenyan,” she announced to the audience, before delving into a seminal speech that highlighted the struggles of women and the youth in the 21st Century.

It was a speech that made demands on the UN to back up pretty words with real action on the ground.


She ended with a call to action, demanding that youth representatives be included in all future gatherings at the General Assembly.

It would be incorrect to say that Vivian had never in her wildest dreams imagined that she would be on the world stage because hers has been a life defined by dreams; the more outrageous, the better. She just never thought that it would come so early, at the age of 24.

“When I received the e-mail from the president of the General Assembly inviting me to give the keynote speech, I did not think that the e-mail was for me. So I did not respond, figuring that they would e-mail again to say that there had been a mistake and it was not me they meant to send it to,” Vivian told Lifestyle.

But the following day, someone from the president’s office called asking if she would honour the invite.

“Of course I said ‘yes’, so excited that there had been no mistake after all,” says Vivian.

She then spent the next few weeks crafting her speech, sending it to various people for editing and revision.

But even after she printed the final version the day before she was due at the Assembly, she was riddled with anxiety and doubts about whether she had written anything that made sense at all.

“I did not sleep that night. I had my speech in a folder right next to my pillow, and I kept reaching for it to read parts of it, to make sure that it was still there. I was so nervous and that nervousness persisted right until when I got on the podium to give the speech,” she says.

But things changed the moment she started talking. “I suddenly gained all the courage in the world and I had a good time.”

Vivian’s moment in the limelight was no fluke, it is just the latest feather in her cap. While most 24-year-olds are still trying to figure out whether they majored in the right course in university or whether their degree certificate will at least give them a foot in the door, Vivian has distinguished herself as a youth activist with impressive credentials.

Her advocacy has seen her appointed as one of the three youth advisors to the UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group. Her capacity in this role is to advise the UN Women Executive Director on issues of youth and women empowerment.

In a speech that seemed to have been echoed by the more famous one given by US President Barack Obama at the Kasarani Indoor Arena during his recent visit to Kenya, Vivian spoke of the importance of giving women equal chances as men. She condemned gender violence as “a way of silencing women” and asked the world to ensure that women are giving opportunities to go to school, noting that “there can be no equality without education”.

And Vivian should know a thing or two about education as an equaliser. She was not always privileged. She was born into a poor single-parent family in Kisumu and has relied on well-wishers to fund her education right from primary school.

“My mother was too poor to pay my fees because she relied on small businesses to feed and clothe us. So in primary school I was that child always being sent home for fees. But at some point, the teachers got tired of sending me home and noticing I had potential, allowed me to stay in class,” says Vivian.


She sat her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations at MM Shah Primary School in 2004 and performed well enough to gain admission to the inaugural class at Starehe Girls’ Centre on a full scholarship.

“It was at Starehe that my life changed completely. That school afforded me the opportunities that have moulded me into the person I am today,” she says.

She recounts dinners and events at lavish Nairobi hotels that she attended to represent her school, and once, a trip to the United Kingdom.

Vivian is full of praise for her former high school principal Margaret Wanjohi whom she says played the role of “second Mom” during her teenage years at the institution.

“Mrs Wanjohi believed in me and would always push me to do my best. She was more than just a teacher. I love her for the constant support she gave me and the other girls. We are still very close up to today and I still e-mail her when I am having a bad day,” says Vivian.

Once out of Starehe, Vivian’s work in activism began in earnest. She cut her teeth doing HIV/AIDS outreach programmes in Migori, particularly working with vulnerable women who had endured abuse at the hands of men.

“I had seen spousal abuse in my village, but I did not know that the problem was that widespread until I started the work in Migori. What I saw there saddened me so much that I decided to start being vocal about women issues, especially the need to educate women so that they could improve their lot in life,” she explains.

She did the job for only five months before she received a full scholarship to Carthage College in the US through the Zawadi Africa Education Fund. Founded by Dr Susan Mboya-Kidero, Zawadi Africa provides educational scholarships to academically talented girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to schools either in Africa or abroad.

At Carthage, she enrolled in a pre-medicine programme, but in due course changed it to a Business and Administration major.

“My mother was disappointed that I did not follow through to become a doctor and she tried to get me to change my mind, but I told her to relax because I knew exactly what I was doing,” she says with a smile.

In the US, Vivian quickly earned her stripes as a youth advocate, landing her first speaking engagement at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010, the same year she enrolled at Carthage.

Since then she has served as the Education Spokesperson for Moremi Africa, a Non-Governmental Organisation and gone to Ghana for leadership training. She has also been a community ambassador for Half the Sky and a global youth ambassador for A World at School. Vivian has also served as a Congressional District Leader for ONE Campaign, an initiative that seeks to eradicate extreme poverty.

She was also listed as one of the 70 most outstanding leaders of the United Nations Association of the United States of America.

In her various capacities, Vivian has met all living American presidents, except Jimmy Carter, with whom she shares a birthday.

“My favourite of the lot is George Bush the first, who touched a chord in my heart with his opinions about servant-leadership. It was very emotional for me to hear him speak,” she says.

However great her achievements so soon after travelling to the land of opportunity, Vivian says she will never forget the extreme culture shock she experienced at first.

“I barely ate for the first few weeks because Americans put cheese in everything and I couldn’t stand it. I did not like pizzas or burgers so I survived on familiar food like bread, eggs and apples, all the while missing ugali and fish!” she says.

It is easy to see why Vivian has won the hearts and minds of so many human rights initiatives. She is passionate without being overly sentimental — a confident, articulate speaker who “researches to death” before she stands to give any address.

She clearly cares about the causes she espouses, saying that her advocacy for equality and education has been informed by her own life experiences.

“I can count on one hand the number of girls from my village who have received an undergraduate degree. My 12-year-old cousin gave birth just the other day and everybody is going about their business as usual, as if everything is OK. I am here to say that everything is not OK,” she says.

In her speech at the General Assembly, Vivian was categorical about giving women the opportunity to occupy spaces, not only in education but also in leadership and other spheres of work.

“Achieving gender equality is more than 50-50 representation; it is also about recognising and respecting women’s rights as human rights, treating women with dignity, offering them equal opportunities to participate fully in the socio-economic and political development of their individual countries,” said Vivian, to thundering applause from the audience.

And to those who say that the tide has turned in favour of girls and completely eclipsed the progress of the boy child, Vivian has this message:


“That’s a debate that I don’t even think we are supposed to be having at this stage. For a long time, girls have been disenfranchised, facing early marriages, dropping out of school, gender violence, little access to economic empowerment or to capital for businesses.

We are not disempowering men by empowering women, we are trying to create an inclusive society where each and every person has an opportunity to maximise on their potential,” she says.

She adds that there can be no talk of a prosperous Kenya “if half of the population is neglected, uneducated and does not have a voice”.

What does she think of the two-third gender rule that will finally see more women join Parliament?

“Kenya is still a very male-dominated country, and for us to have more women representation we have to use the quota rule. That is where Rwanda started, setting aside 30 per cent of its parliamentary seats for women. Now it is a global model with 64 per cent of all parliamentary seats held by women. If we start by embracing the quota system, we will get there,” she says.

Does she think more needs to be done to encourage women to run for seats, seeing as even women voters rarely vote for women?

“For Kenya, when women try for elective seats, they are asked questions that would never be asked of a man. Questions like ‘Is she married?’ ‘Where was she seen the other night?’ or ‘What was she wearing?’ and this pettiness is used to gauge her capacity to be a leader,” says Vivian.

She believes that to have more women running for elective seats, “there is need for more stories of women who have done it, women who have beaten the system and become leaders despite the odds stacked against them. That is the only way the grassroots community will see women as leaders and actually start voting for them”.

Is she a feminist?

“Yes, and I have no apologies to make about it,” she says, with no trace of hesitation or doubt. She adds that she uses her feminism to fight for women and girls who have been pushed aside by the system.

Vivian is unsparing of bad leaders with ruinous policies and corrupt practices.

“What we lack in our society today are servant leaders, people who are in positions of power to help, as opposed to those who just want to take advantage. We have situations where people have got into government and all they want is to rake in as much money as they can for themselves. That’s not leadership, that’s greed,” she says.

For all her towering accomplishments and her clarity of thought and purpose, it is easy to sometimes forget that Vivian is just in her early 20s, a young person with a young person’s dreams and aspirations. So, is she dating?

“I have not dated because I am not interested and because I feel there are things I need to do right now. Also, I am still young, I have a whole life ahead of me so when the time comes, I will date,” she says.

She adds that her immediate priority is getting the youth involved in the transition of the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals, and seeing that young people play a role in realising all the 17 goals.

Vivian has just accepted a job in South Africa as a consultant at Africa2.0, an advocacy organisation.