Tell us about yourself
I am Leila Muriithia Simiyu, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. I was admitted into the bar 11 years ago. I work with the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) as a Senior Program Officer overseeing all the programs in the organizations whether here in Nairobi or refugee camps and other areas within the country. I also head the Legal Aid and Social Justice Program at RCK and give direction in terms of the implementation of the Program. I am also a Board Member of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies based in Geneva Switzerland, composed of 5 female Board Members. I am married with two children. I think that is me in summary
Which animal character would you best relate yourself to and why?
A lion comes to mind because being a woman in a leadership position is not easy, there is a lot expected from you. Society keeps spying on you to see if you are doing the “right” thing. Anything that you do is given a bigger test than what a male colleague or leader would do. For me, having the courage and confidence to lead and trickling that down among my female colleagues and pushing them to take up the leadership baton demonstrates a lot of courage, and confidence. Speaking of this, I am reminded of a recent incidence during a workshop where there were many male figures. One of the men who sat next to me was concerned that 3 women had presented on a session regarding protection issues for refugees in the urban sectors. I had to speak out on his observation reminding him that all other presentations were conducted by men and it was not raised as an issue. So he backed off but had certainly given him a piece of my mind. I actually link it to what we learnt when we were at the AWLI in Kampala, Uganda, where we were encouraged to take courage, enhance our capacities and never give up because of the comments from what others think and stand up for other women as well. So the struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment is not one man show but rather a collective struggle for other sisters. I was offended by that comment but I did not keep quiet
When did you participate in the AWLI? And did it in any way impact your life or career path?
It was in 2012 when I participated in the AWLI workshop and for me it actually had a huge impact in terms of my personality. One of the session on sharing our past and things that somehow defined us as women touched me the most. Listening to other women, what they had gone through, some things were similar others were not but actually showed that the women had stood up and overcame their struggles. This helped me to deal with my own issues and appreciate myself as a woman. I remember we had exercises on self-discovery as women and to be very honest that was powerful. Even when you are aware of your femininity, time and again you find yourself boxed, you do not want to be conspicuous, you just want to be somewhere in a corner. For me the AWLI enhanced my self-confidence, I am actually very confident even in the way I take myself, the way I dress and do my work. So I fully embraced my femininity and this was very different from the time when I had not undertaken the AWLI though it was not that bad.
And also what rings through my mind a lot was the emphasis laid on taking care of oneself as a woman so that you can also give more of yourself to others. When you are working in this professional field you need to balance between your work life and family. There are so many demands between your family and so much in terms of your profession/ occupation as well as extended family but do you take time to be with yourself and care for yourself? To be honest that was something I learnt deeply at the AWLI.
I do take care of myself, on a weekly basis I pamper myself, simple things like reading a novel in bed. That is something that came out very strongly during that time. I cannot even say how much I really appreciated that. I made a conscious effort on a personal level actually to take care of me as a person. I think that also helps a lot because when you take care of yourself and get in touch with your inner self, then you are also able to take care of others too.
I remember even during the workshop there was one lady from Uganda who gave an example, of how on a daily basis for 10 minutes after preparing breakfast for her family, she would just pray or meditate and for her that was her ‘me’ time. So for me I really remember and still apply that.
Professionally, what I took out is not to be afraid to take up leadership positions at all, knowing that women are equal leaders as men and we can actually do better. When I was at the AWLI workshop, I was a Program Head as it were, now I am the Senior Program Officer which means I deputize the Executive Director and I am second in command in the organization. When the opportunity arose to fill in this current position, I would have chosen not to apply but I had the confidence that I can do it. Passing this on, to other women and mentoring them as leaders has been very key. In the organizational work, I also ensure that our projects include refugee women as key players at all levels.
Honestly the AWLI had an impact on me both professionally and personally, but I think a bigger impact in terms of me as a person which has influenced how I work.
As you go about your daily work are there lessons from the AWLI that you apply and/or have enhanced your work?
In terms of leadership and profession, I have taken on the role of mentoring young women and girls we actually work with. There are times I see my younger self in them, where you are not sure of yourself and wonder whether you can deliver the task at hand. I am usually very firm with them and reaffirm my support towards the achievement of the task. I reassure them of their capability to handle the leadership position. I mentor the women and girls in my own way. Last year we were getting a coordinator for one of our offices and I told her that she can do it and I have the confidence in her and that I will walk with her through her professional journey being a manager and leader. For me that is a conscious effort that is there to support the women in our organization to be leaders.
One other lesson I took from the AWLI which always comes to mind is Never apologize for being a woman never! I interacted with several women who were confident in their skin and their femininity. This is something very profound that I have really carried with me even through my work.
What would you consider as the greatest achievement for African women our strife for gender equality and women’s empowerment since the Nairobi Conference 1995 and Beijing platform of Action?
For me the greatest achievement has been the increasing number of women in leadership positions whether it’s the private sector even in government jobs. It’s encouraging to see a country like Rwanda having more female members of parliament. That is excellent! If you compared that with the time of the Beijing Platform conference that was not the case. I think there has been some progress in many other sectors however there is a lot more that needs to be done especially when it comes to social society attitudes towards women and linkage of women leadership to their sexuality. For example in Kenya I was very pained with the case of a former Cabinet Secretary who was linked to a national youth service scandal where millions of shillings were said to have been squandered. Part of the discussions in social media, was her alleged illicit relationship with the President which alluded to the discussants, that she could therefore not be suspended from her position. This was also alleged by some politicians in public forums. People simply “undressed” her and there were superimposed semi nude pictures of her with explicit remarks made. This was a sign that we still have lots of struggles as women leaders that society has not separated our professional work from our sexuality. It is linked to us whether we are doing well or not. So that if a woman is rising fast through the ranks and she has a male boss, then it is taken by parts of the society that it is the way she looks and not her brains.
I even had a female colleague who informed me that someone was claiming her bosses must be male otherwise she would not have risen through the ranks that fast. Her bosses are all female by the way. Meaning in as much as we have had the progress societal attitudes are still bringing us down as if our femininity is a bad thing. It is beautiful and should be embraced by everyone and celebrated. We still have a very long way to go.
But at least there are efforts and you can see even in terms of CSOs coming out more and reminding the government of provisions in our laws that are aimed at enhancing equal opportunities for women and men. For instance in Kenya, it is enshrined in the constitution that no more than two third of the members of elective public bodies will be of the same gender. This is a great attempt to ensure more women are represented.
What is your message to the world as we mark International Women’s Day on the 8th March 2016? And what does this day mean to you as a woman?
I think my message would be that young African women can do it, whether it’s professionally or in home setting we can do it. I do not know how to deal with society attitudes, because attitude is difficult to change but if we are given an opportunity as women we can do it. It’s a time to embrace women. It is important that International women’s day is fully embraced by society; you will find a lot of people consider it as a woman’s issue, we need to find a way to also bring men on board so it’s not considered a woman’s issue.
If you had to write a letter to your daughter or niece what would be your key message to her in world where women are still struggling for their rights and freedoms
I would tell her “ Dear, Lisa, You look up to me and I am a woman, you look up to your grandmother and she is woman. Remember this world is not easy but believe in yourself that means, believe in you because we believe in you. You are a woman, you are girl and do not let anyone stop you from achieving your dreams, you can reach anywhere if you put your mind to it. You should not be afraid to do something just because you’re a girl”
Finally which one thing would you like the world to remember about Leila for when you’re long gone from this other world?
The world would remember me for always and constantly drumming in their minds that women can be leaders, and the fact that I take no excuses for women not taking up leadership positions.