Sophia Abdi: Nasty encounter with male pupils that shaped my political journey

Sophia Abdi speaks during  the annual Women's Right Convention convened by  Crawn-Trust that was held on August 23  2023 in Nairobi.  She said her candidature as MP elicited a lot of politics because no woman had ever dared to vie for a political seat in Kenya's North Eastern region. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Sophia Abdi landed a teaching job at a  boys' primary school after completing her tertiary studies but the pupils rejected her.
  • She later ventured into politics and made history after becoming the first woman to be elected MP from the North Eastern region of Kenya.
  • She has spearheaded and participated in numerous gender equality campaigns and was among the very few women from her community, to complete high school and enrol for a tertiary course.

After completing her college studies in the mid-1980s, Sophia Abdi went back to her home village in Ijara, Northern Kenya.

She landed a teaching job at a local boys' primary school. However, she immediately encountered a rude shock when she reported to the school and the boys flatly refused to be taught by her.

“The boys said they could not be taught by me. They told me on my face that a woman could not teach them. It was embarrassing and humiliating,” Sophia says.

Although the row was later resolved and she embarked on her teaching career, the humiliating experience ignited in her the zeal to fight for the rights of the marginalised in the community through gender equality campaigns.

Several years later, she abandoned teaching and ventured into the women's rights movement, becoming the Executive Director of Womankind Kenya from 1992 to 2006.

During this time, she advocated against retrogressive cultural practices that prevented women in her community from participating in local affairs and leadership.

In the run up to the 1997 General Election, she vied for the Ijara parliamentary seat on a Kanu ticket, the popular political party in the area then.

Sophia, who shared her plight during the recent Annual Women's Right Convention convened by the Community Advocacy and Awareness (Crawn-Trust) reveals her candidature elicited a lot of politics because no woman had ever dared to vie for a political seat in the entire North Eastern region.

Seasoned politicians

“Everybody, including the elders, women and girls called me a mad woman. I, however, soldiered on. All teachers stood with me and gave me their support,” she said.

She emerged victorious in the party primaries, beating seasoned politicians. Top Kanu party officials finally handed the nomination certificate to her at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC).

Her joy was, however, short-lived when elders and religious leaders in the area went to the top Kanu decision-making organ, calling for the cancellation of her nomination. It was subsequently cancelled due to cultural and religious arguments that prohibited women from becoming leaders.

Her primary reason for contesting a parliamentary seat was to use parliament as a means to introduce legislation that would deal with challenges women faced, especially those from marginalised regions.

Despite the setback, she went ahead to become a sterling example of a resilient female politician. She defied the odds and continued to contribute, and influence local politics in her constituency and nationally.

Kewopa official

This paid off after she became the first woman from the North Eastern region to be nominated to parliament by the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in 2007.

Sophia served as the chair of the departmental committee on Labour and Social Welfare and member of the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee.

In the 2013 elections, she ran for the Ijara parliamentary seat but failed to capture the seat. She, however, got a soft landing after the Jubilee Coalition nominated her to the 11th Parliament.

During her tenure, she served as the vice-chair of Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (Kewopa).

In 2017, her spirited bid for elective leadership finally paid off after she was elected the Ijara MP, under the Party for Development and Reforms.

She made history after becoming the first woman to be elected MP from the North Eastern region of Kenya. She trounced her closest rival incumbent Ahmed Ibrahim Abass, with nearly 300 votes. She garnered 5,824 votes to Abass’ 5,398 votes.

Before 2017, no woman had ever won an elective seat in the region.

Elders and religious leaders who were initially opposed to her leadership accepted her after she clinched victory. However, not all the leaders accepted her as their MP- they continued to peddle propaganda about her, Sophia shared.

“Some went round the constituency telling locals that al shabaab attacks were rampant in the area because they elected a woman. Others said the area was experiencing severe drought because a woman was the MP,” she adds.

Despite this setback, Sophia recruited elders to be part of her team.

She had to do a lot of work to appease her voters - a woman has to do twice or thrice more than her male colleagues, she said at the convention.

Tertiary course

For the five years she served as MP, Sophia is proud of initiating development projects including connecting the area to the national grid, lobbying for roads worth Sh4.8 billion, and reviving education, whose standard had dwindled.

Her message to women is to always stand for what they believe in and work to actualise their dreams.

Born to a family of Somali pastoralists, the former teacher became popular because of advocating for the rights of marginalised women.

She has spearheaded and participated in numerous gender equality campaigns and was among the very few women from her community, to complete high school and enrol for a tertiary course.

Throughout her life, she has fought against retrogressive cultural practices such as early marriage, wife inheritance, and female genital mutilation.

From 1987 to 1989, she served as a teacher at Boys Town Primary School in Ijara before becoming principal of Yuga Girls School from 1989 to1992.

Between 2002 and 2008, she was a delegate at the defunct Kenya National Constitutional Conference.

She also served as a commissioner of the Kenya National Commission on Poverty Reduction from 2004 to 2008, and a member of National Council of Children Services between 2005 and 2008.

Sophia holds a Bachelor of Arts in Community Development Studies from Kimmage Development Studies Centre in Ireland, and an Executive Master’s Degree in Management and Organisational Management from United States International University (USIU).

She has won various international awards that recognise her efforts towards women empowerment.

Among the awards include the Social Justice award from the International Leadership Institute in Minnesota, the International Democracy Fellowship from the Lees Aspen Centre for Governance in Washington DC, and the Father John Kaiser Human Rights Award of the Year in 2007 by the Law Society of Kenya.