Our January Remarkable Woman kicking off the year 2012 is a woman who has been turning heads and ruffling feathers in Kenya for many years. At Afrikan Goddess Online, our goal is to highlight African women who are selflessly reaching above and beyond in the bid to make life better and easier for others. Martha Wangari Karua is our January feature and Kenya’s 2012 president aspirant.
When a woman steps up to challenge the status quo in Africa, eye-brows are quickly raised and words like “mad woman” are thrown around. And when said woman decides to run for president, people do take notice. Martha, popularly referred to as “Iron Lady of Africa” is a woman who is not backing down in her devotion to speak out on justice, human and womens’ right in Kenya. She is a lawyer and a renowned politician, and she has built her reputation on integrity and discipline. There is a lot to be said about Martha, from her refusal to use make-up to her silence on the state of her marital life, but, you will never say her mission to create a disciplined nation governed by the rule of law is inconsistent.
When one hears of the “Iron Lady of Africa,” we are confronted with images of a no-nonsense woman without compassion tackling the men in her way with an iron fist while driving everyone else in her path to submission. Martha Karua will meet some of your expectations, defile many of them and exceed quite a few. Her no-nonsense attribute gets the work done, and African countries are yearning for leaders that get the work done. However, compassion is not a mark that Martha lacks, she is devoted to building Kenya into a country that steps up and caters to the needs of the masses. Her compassion coupled with her fighting spirit has seen her advancing women’s right through her leadership and advocacy in government and through her past involvement in both international and national organizations.
Martha is not intimidated by the men she works with and challenges daily. If you choose to call her out of her femininity, because she is outspoken, save your breath, for it does not bother her. In a country (and continent for that matter) where the roles of men and women are sharply contrasted and slowly evolving, people’s expectation of who she is and what she should stand for as a woman who is also a leader is not that unfamiliar to her.
In a recent interview with the East African Magazine, Drum, Martha stated clearly that “There are those who are not able to handle the me that I am, because if you are a person who challenges the status quo, a woman out there competing, refusing to be intimidated, there are people who cannot handle that, so instead of just letting me be, they will give me all the names, arrogant; iron lady; what if I was a man?”
Martha remains a leading crusader for the widening of democratic space and gender issues in Kenya. Through her work with various women’s organizations, particularly the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya) and the League of Kenya Women Voters, she is a champion for women’s rights through public interest litigation, lobbying and advocacy for laws that enhance and protect women’s rights.
Martha is quick to point to her father, mother and maternal grandmother as her source of strength. Observing her uneducated but strong and independent grandmother challenging the status quo, left an indelible impression on Martha. “There are things that never leave your mind, and I remember as if it were yesterday because they left an impression. If I look at my father through his profession as a teacher, and my mum, I would say I got my values from them,” she has said.
Born as Martha Wangari Karua in the rural areas of Kirinyaga district of Kenya, Martha’s humble, but strong upbringing, taught her values she still lives out today. One of the greatest lessons she learned growing up was to have a sense of duty to her community. A sense of duty, Martha Karua believes is lacking in the Kenyan leadership, and one she hopes to restore.
She earned a law degree with honors from the Nairobi University, and at 24, Martha was appointed to serve as a magistrate in several courts in Nakuru and Kibera. She later went into private practice as Martha Karua & Co, taking on many human rights cases without compensation. Her work spoke out against injustice and for human rights and put her at the risk of being blacklisted and even jailed by the then dictatorial Moi government. It was an experience that led her to sit her two young children down and explain to them how her work could lead to her disappearance.
As a working mother taking care of two children, now in their 20s, Martha had to juggle political and family life. While raising her son and daughter, she worked in several high government roles including Minister of Water, Minister of Justice, and as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Gichugu constituency. She has contributed to the development of family law and especially the distribution of matrimonial property in Kenya, as well as constitutional and administrative law. Her work ethic is said to be unparalleled and remarkable. She has shown resilience in her extensive experience in government and has remained untainted by corruption and bad governance practices. Martha remains passionate about her sense of duty to the Kenyan people. “We could go so much further as a country, but we first have to get our house in order and rid ourselves of the bad habits that hold us back and I am prepared to do that job” she has said. Her bid to run for president of Kenya in 2012 is a step in the right direction. If elected, her presidency will usher in a government in which Kenya and its people come first. It promises to be a government that responds speedily and fairly to the needs of the people and provides them with an environment in which they can achieve their potential so as to restore hope and to build a secure future.