Akili Dada Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg was recently interviewed for Women and Girls Lead Global by Josephine Karianjahi.  Josephine is the Kenya Country Coordinator of Women and Girls Lead Global, which harnesses the power of media to improve girls' and women's lives. A partnership between USAID, the Ford Foundation and CARE, this initiative highlights powerful female leaders, and partnerships that link these stories with community organizations' efforts to train the next generation of women leaders. Many thanks to Josephine and WGLG.

The Next Generation of Women Leaders by Josephine Karianjahi

Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg works at the intersection of academia and social entrepreneurship. A professor of political science and international relations, she is also the founder and Executive Director of Akili Dada, an award-winning leadership incubator that is nurturing the next generation of African women leaders.

She spoke with WGLG-Kenya’s Country Engagement Coordinator Josephine Karianjahi — whose “Women in the Red” campaign strives to balance the gender equation in Kenyan politics­ — about the value of women leaders, and what it will take to prepare more Kenyan women for political office.


Josephine: Why should women lead, in your view?

Wanjiru: Because humanity is comprised of 50 percent — even slightly more — women. As a country, a continent, a world, we are missing out on half of the human resources available to us, and we cannot let that happen anymore. In fact, as Africans, as Kenyans we cannot afford to leave 50 percent of everything on the table, and walk away.

Why not? What do we miss out on?

We’re missing out on women’s perspectives. Women play different roles in society and experience things differently, so we are going to look at issues differently than men do – and that should be taken into account. We are going to make better, more just decisions for all of humanity by including a wider range of perspectives.

Can we as women change the masculine bias of politics in Kenya?

Absolutely, we can and we have done it before. Women have made tremendous contributions in our society. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Greenbelt Movement look at her life and impact she has had on this country. Why are we not allowing more Wangari Maathais to bring their best to this country? That is the big question.

Why there aren’t any more Wangari Maathai’s out there?

What is the pipeline? I worry because we have not built a robust pipeline to enable women to grow into Wangari Maathai’s. That’s what Akili Dada does, the young women’s leadership incubator I started: we widen the pipeline and make sure we are not scrambling to find good women leaders ten years from now. We’re investing in young women today so that we have a steady supply of passionate, well-trained, networked young women ready to step into decision-making.

How do you do that?

At Akili Dada, the first thing we take care of is access. Poverty poses one of the biggest challenges to young women, it’s an incredible barrier to leadership. So we start by providing access to education through scholarships. Then we provide access to financial resources through a fellowship for social change projects, so that young women can have the experience of designing an innovative solution to a problem. If you look at the global market place of ideas, there are a lot of investments in social entrepreneurship to solve the problems faced by African women, but we are not investing in African women to solve those problems. If you take a young woman who has grown up walking 20 miles to fetch water, she has had enough time to think about how this problem can be solved. We have lots of home-grown solutions, we do not need to be importing.

Second: we offer mentoring, so young women can learn from others who have been successful. The way I see what Akili Dada does is really recreating systems which the African society had in the past: women nurturing their younger sisters into maturity, going through the rites of passage, which always came with intense learning, a seclusion where women were taken aside and learnt how to function as women in society. A lot of that has been corrupted, but Akili Dada recreates for the modern world traditions that existed in the past.

And finally, we build young women’s leadership skills by teaching negotiation, fundraising, advocacy, and community mobilization.

That helps prepare the women; but how do you address attitudes that say that leadership is men’s domain?

The way we’ll convince the public that African women can lead is when they see African women leading and making a success of it. It’s not about doing a road show where we get up and say, “African women can lead” —we will change attitudes by showing, not telling.

Your personal story has been shared in terms of an African woman in leadership. How do you think sharing stories like yours and that of Wangari Maathai contribute to building leadership?

Stories are critical — human beings think in stories. Stories touch our hearts, they open up new horizons. They move us beyond numbers on a sheet and create possibilities.

Right now, we have a few women in the Senate in Kenya, and women heading up the dockets on defense, energy and the environment. The elections of March 2013 also offered the potential to elect women as governors, deputy governors, Members of Parliament and county representatives, but that potential wasn’t realized. How can the women who hold key leadership positions help create avenues for other women to achieve leadership by 2017, when we hold national elections again?

The 2010 Kenyan Constitution is incredibly progressive in terms of women’s access to decision-making positions. The State is obliged to appoint a certain percentage of women to these offices, but the Supreme Court ruled that the legislature gains are supposed to be progressive, so it will take another five years to realize them.

Women who are already in government should make sure that the State keeps doing everything that the Constitution mandates in regard to supporting women. I worry, however, about placing a burden on women who are already carrying so much — because at the end of the day, it’s for all of us to hold our State accountable, for all of us to hold our political parties accountable, for all of us to make those necessary investments in women.

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