What you need to know:
- The theory that women are emotional is what sets us apart. It means we relate and empathise with matters that come to us. Our emotions have stopped wars in the world.
- They have made men come to the table and negotiate when it was very difficult to do so. Our emotions have influence.
- Often, there are squabbles about women in leadership being emotional. Men are emotional as well. It is just that society does not judge them as such.
Before you meet Anne Ireri, her accomplishments and title as Federation of Women Lawyers of Kenya (Fida) Executive Director are more than enough to make you jittery. At first glance, she exudes a calm but confident aura. She confirms this assumption that many expect her to be stand-offish but end up finding her approachable.
“You must never look at yourself as a boss. I know it sounds like a cliche but you are there to serve people. You must be grounded enough to open the big doors that you need to open but you must never lose sight of those you are opening them for,” she says.
Her story at Fida began when she became an intern at the organisation before she was admitted to the bar, not knowing that 16 years later she would be at the top of the organisation.
“On the day that I got admitted to the bar, one of the judges told me that there is more to law than all the fancy corporate cases. I was very fortunate to do my pupillage under Senior Counsel Lucy Kambuni and the late Carol Githae who passed on in October.
I wanted the experience of strong legal women. The two powerful women really propelled my career to who I am. They are the ones who introduced me to FIDA where I was hired as an intern,” she says.
She remembers how exciting it was to watch them in action in court while being feisty but still maintaining their femininity and playing out their different roles effectively, a trait she hoped to have later on in her career.
“Law is still very power-oriented and male-dominated. When you are a tough woman who can argue well, all of a sudden society might decide you are not feminine enough. Women should make no apologies for their emotions. If I feel like crying, I will. If I feel like having all my passion play out in the courtroom, I will get my judgement at the end of the day.
The theory that women are emotional is what sets us apart. It means we relate and empathise with matters that come to us. Our emotions have stopped wars in the world. They have made men come to the table and negotiate when it was very difficult to do so. Our emotions definitely have influence. Often, there are squabbles about women in leadership being emotional. Men are emotional as well. It is just that society does not judge them as such,” she says.
Born in Nakuru to a university lecturer and teacher father and mother respectively, Anne is the youngest of four in her family. As a product of educators, it was only natural for her to excel academically and go to Alliance Girl's High School, which she credits for her discipline and friendships that have come to serve her to date.
“When I was in high school, I knew I would be a lawyer but I also thought of becoming an architect. I love design work. I was even the prefect in charge of Home Economics. I was also part of the poetry club and choir,” she says.
She then went on to be among the first law students at Moi University, which led her to seek an internship at Fida. What stood out for Anne as an intern was that most of the women who came to the organisation seeking different legal services were disadvantaged.
“I realised the only difference between me and them was that we were fortunate enough to be educated and grew up in social systems that viewed us as equal to boys.
The only thing that did not work for those girls was where they were born and the circumstances that came with that. Can you imagine being married off at 12? What does a girl know about marriage at that age? That easily could have been any of us. I learnt not to take anything for granted,” she says.
Her first leadership role at Fida was being in charge of the Mombasa regional office when she was 28, making her one of the youngest leaders back then.
After eight years of working for the organisations, she was called to be the National Coordinator of the 160 Girls Project, an award-winning strategic litigation project under the Equality Effect an NGO based in Toronto, Canada. Under her leadership, the program was awarded the UN Best Practice Award in 2017 as well as the World Justice Project Awards in 2019.
“It was a chance for me to start something from scratch. It was a project that had been initiated out of a legal High Court constitutional petition seeking to outline what the responsibility of the police is when it comes to protecting children from sexual violence.
It was personal to me because I am an aunt to many. I saw my nieces and nephews in the faces of the children we met in the primary schools we worked with. There is nothing as fulfilling as being able to protect children and show them that the world can be safe but there are certain things they should do to protect themselves,” she says.
She jokes that every time she takes a step back from leadership roles, life finds a way to get her back into it. She was asked twice to return to Fida as the Executive Director which she turned down but the third time was a charm.
In September 2019, she stepped up to take up the role. Then, the pandemic hit, making her a ‘Covid CEO’, having to navigate the strange times and problems the pandemic caused.
“Imagine the weight of carrying that role at that time. Numerous lessons were learnt on how to deal with shock and the unexpected. It is a 24-hour job, 7 days per week. You never sign out because violations happen at any time.
A violation can occur at midnight on a Saturday and you have to respond to it. It is not really a job. It is a calling. It is the choice that you make that sacrifice that will make a difference,” she says.
“Even if a chicken gets lost, people will ask where is Fida,” she jokes.
The title however came with its blessings when she found herself named as Business Daily’s Top 40 Under 40 Woman in 2019 for her achievements in the legal protection of vulnerable groups in Kenya.
“I have never known who nominated me to date. It came as a surprise since I was new in office. It was such a nice encouragement,” she recalls.
Anne admits that the nature of human rights work is very emotionally draining. How she gets through is by finding small joys to latch on in her busy schedule to balance out her life.
“I look forward to telling my partner how my day was. I often joke and call him Baba Fida because they call me Mama Fida at work. Having him in my life has been such a solidifying factor that there are men who are champions, the he-for-shes.
Those who are willing to support women in the choices they make. I play an active role in the lives of my nieces and nephews. Most of them are young adults now and I think I am the aunt that they can talk to when they need to talk about anything,” she said.
If time allows, she would watch a television series produced by American producer Shonda Rhimes such as Bridgeton. Learning about American football as she watches with ‘Baba FIDA’ is one of the other ways Anne would spend her time unwinding.
“It is just as important to cuddle up in a corner of the house to decompress by reading a good book or watching something funny. I love humour. Laughter is the best medicine. I scroll through Instagram videos and laugh at how people perceive things in ways I could not imagine.
I am a stickler that you are as good as you take care of yourself. Whatever it is that works for you, do it and make sure that can create that balance,” she advises.
Off the top of her head, she names Nigerian artist Burna Boy, Sauti Sol and UK songbird Emeli Sande as her favourite artistes.
“I attended a Sauti Sol concert when I was much younger in 2008. It was in Mombasa. I have even had a photo with them,” the fangirl in her came out.
In her fourth year of running Fida, she points out that women constantly downplay their trauma, which is evident in the cases they have dealt with where there were warning signs that were ignored.
“The notion that women are strong and can take on so much is one of the biggest undoings. Yes, we are strong but we have interpreted that we should never be broken when something bad happens to us. Take the example of a newlywed girl. She is violated within her marriage and seeks help from her aunt or mother. Their response dismisses her feelings by telling her, ‘That is marriage,’ or ‘Go back to your home.’
We have also made it easier for people to violate us, especially African women. We should be allowed to break and be supported when we do so,” she said.
Anne holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Women’s rights and equality in Sweden and is a recipient of the prestigious United States Global Women Leaders International Program.
She is a women's rights transformative champion with a solid and proven record in law, policy, and advocacy matters within the public and non-governmental sectors. She has worked extensively with different regional organizations based in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, and Mali. She has had the opportunity to work in London, United Kingdom as an African attorney at Interights.