Women’s rights and writing: Lawyer Enid Muthoni’s rise to global stage

Enid Muthoni, the Chief Programmes Officer at the Centre for Reproductive Rights. For Muthoni, burying her ambitions and dreams in an unmarked grave was not an option. 

Enid Muthoni refused to be a statistic almost 40 years ago as a pre-teen in a small village on the slopes of Mt Kenya where many girls never achieved their dreams. 

For Muthoni, burying her ambitions and dreams in an unmarked grave was not an option. 

Fighting against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), gender injustices and male-dominated societies, she eventually worked her way up from a village girl to a high-profile advocate currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. 

She has authored three books that will be launched in Nairobi next week: Breaking At The Seams, Memoirs of a Gender Focal Point and The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce.
Muthoni went to  Munga Primary School in Meru. She then joined Alliance Girls High School in Kikuyu, Kiambu County.

"When you grow up in a small village where necessities like healthcare are luxuries, your dreams become limited. At that time, my ambition was to build a timber house,” she says.
 Muthoni is the second last-born in a family of 11 children. As the last-born girl, she developed a special relationship with her father, who ensured she read books from a young age.

“When my primary school headmaster got the admission letter to Alliance, he called my father. For the first time, my father took me shopping. There was only one shopkeeper in our area so my father gave him the list and bought everything needed,” she says. 

“My father had also never been to Nairobi but he took me all the way to Kikuyu. It was an adventure and a dream come true.”

 Years later, during a careers day hosted by the school, Muthoni was convinced to pursue law. 
“Alumni from different professions drove into the school. I met a woman with a law firm in Nairobi who was driving a Mercedes Benz. I never thought that a woman could control money,” Muthoni says. 

“Back in the village, we would have a lot of food from our farm but no money. My mother would take care of the coffee and livestock and my father would sell them and keep the money. My perspective was slowly being changed.”

Next up for cut

Muthoni’s fight against gender injustices started long before she became a lawyer. Her agemates were being forced to undergo FGM as part of the cultural practices. Muthoni’s aunt would remind her every Christmas that she was next up for the cut. 

“I was terrified and could not imagine that she was actually looking forward to having me mutilated. Fortunately, the then president made a proclamation calling on parents not to circumcise girls. I was fortunate that my mother obeyed the order,” she says.

The new law was not her only motivation. Muthoni witnessed women in her village being mistreated and beaten by their husbands, but they never left the marriages, afraid of not having anywhere else to go. 

The woman she met on the career day at Alliance worked for the Federation of Female Lawyers (Fida). The lawyer told Muthoni that the organisation helped oppressed women access legal help and claim properties they were entitled to.

 “This was the answer to what I witnessed as I was growing up. I wanted to be the woman that helped put a stop to the problems,” she says.

Muthoni proceeded to study law at the University of Nairobi. After practising for four years,  she joined Fida-Kenya.

“It is really satisfying to help and watch a person finally get the courage to fight for the justice she truly deserves. But the work also drains you. You listen to very traumatising stories. I remember a case of a woman who had just been discharged from hospital after giving birth through Caesarean section,” she says. 

“Her husband demanded sex the same week but the woman refused. He kicked her in the stomach where she had been stitched. She was in a critical condition but did not want to report the assault to police out of fear.”

Muthoni says the frustration from such cases comes from the fear of women not knowing where to go upon leaving an abusive relationship or how the community will view them. 

It makes most women return to abusive marriages, expecting the situation to improve. That is never the case. They return to seek help with even more serious injuries. 

Muthoni is the Chief Programmes Officer at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a global NGO. She is based in Geneva and oversees programmes in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States. The centre plays a big role in advancing reproductive rights around the world. Its work often includes abortion rights, an issue that sharply divides opinion.

Grey areas

Muthoni says abortion laws in Kenya have many grey areas. Research shows a relation between unmet needs for contraceptives and abortion.

A 2020 study by Miranda Hakansson, a researcher, in Western Kenya, showed that unsafe abortion is the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19. Many did not use modern contraceptives. 

It also states that adolescent girls associated with abortion and contraceptive use are at risk of social judgement and discrimination by peers and teachers.
 “Age-appropriate education is important in teaching people reproductive rights from a young age. The form of contraception we got when young was that we should stay away from the opposite sex and abstain, which is not effective,” the lawyer says.

Enid Muthoni

Enid Muthoni has authored three books that will be launched in Nairobi next week: Breaking At The Seams, Memoirs of a Gender Focal Point and The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce.

Photo credit: Pool

“There are a lot of contradictory laws on how boys and girls get access to contraception and HIV/Aids drugs. Statistics that show the increase of teenage pregnancies and HIV infections are mostly with people under 18. These youngsters are not given access to contraceptions or related information.”
Contraception as a topic has been avoided or shunned even by older generations. 

While working for the UN Population Fund, Muthoni recalls conversations in which people debated where to put up family planning clinics. Some said it would be better to have them behind hospital buildings to make it easier for individuals to obtain the services discreetly. 

“Some women do not openly go for contraceptives because their husbands are against family planning. Most would opt for implants that are not easily detected,” she says.

Muthoni’s books are a reflection of social topics touching on gender issues.  In Breaking At The Seams, she dissects the narratives she was made to believe while growing up, and how she had to unlearn them over time and create new narratives for herself that break societal norms.

Fida

Beneficiaries of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) celebrate after receiving a cheque of one million shillings from National Government Affirmative Action Fund (NGAAF) through NGAAF Manager Jared Ondera at their offices in Lavington, Nairobi on June 25, 2019.Photo

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

“I did not grow up materially wealthy but my childhood was rich with experiences. Fast forward to being an adult, I found it very frustrating to watch empowered women going through painful experiences that I grew out of, such as navigating divorce or their husbands marrying second wives,” she says. 

“Even if you get yourself out, you are still part of a community that needs help to get to that point of freedom and release.”

Constant reminder

Memoirs of a Gender Focal Point is about her journey. It is a constant reminder to push and talk about gender issues through her work.

“In 2006, I was working for Norwegian Church Aid and we were doing gender assessment. There was tension between the Pokot and Turkana communities over cattle rustling. We met a Pokot woman walking alone back to the camp,” she says. 

“Despite the insecurity in the area, she left the safety of the camp and was rushing her son to the hospital, which was several kilometres away. She was with her husband.” 
“Unfortunately, the child died on her back before they got to the hospital. The man told his wife that they should go back home and leave the body of the child on the road to be eaten by hyenas. She refused and continued with the journey to the clinic where the body would be safe. The husband went back home to take care of the cattle.”

Memoirs of a Gender Focal Point is a clear example of how a woman’s status is lowly regarded in some communities.
Cows are supposed to drink water – a scarce resource in such dry areas even in the best of times – before women. Men always take the first sip.

“It is almost like poverty has the face of a woman. Most photographs that are taken in drought-stricken regions show children with flies on their faces or women scrambling to find something for their children to eat. I want to change narrative and perception but it is a long struggle,” she says.
Muthoni also dips her fingers into relationships in The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce, where she narrates her experiences. 

 “No one gets into marriage with the intention of walking away but ‘till death do us part’ should never be a death sentence. There is no script on how marriage will flourish or fail but what constitutes a successful relationship cannot be easily found in a convenient rule book or guide. It just has to be experienced,” the mother of three says.

Muthoni says she believes a person’s life is never a mistake, and that to be a meaningful contributor to the world you must “experience the sweetness and beauty of the flower and the prick of the thorn” in everything, especially relationships between the sexes.

Muthoni has more than 25 years of experience in law, human rights, gender and women’s rights. Before her latest high-profile role in Geneva, she worked for the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO), UN Development Programme and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. 

Muthoni holds a Bachelor of Law from the University of Nairobi, a post-graduate diploma in Law and a Master’s of Arts in Gender and Development from the University of Nairobi. 

She will be launching the three books in Nairobi on January 13 as a celebration of turning 50.

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