PURITY KAGWIRIA Nurturing young women leaders
Purity Kagwiria is the executive director of Akili Dada, a non-governmental organisation that grooms young women for leadership so as to address the under representation of women in leadership positions in Africa. In commemoration of International Women’s Day celebrated this month, ESTHER KIRAGU picks Purity’s brains on nurturing the next generation of women leaders.
Purity Kagwiria has been advocating for women’s rights issues for over a decade. She stumbled into the women’s right movement accidentally during her college days while training as a journalist. As a requirement prior to graduation, one needed to submit a research paper linked to a current issue they felt passionate about.
“I struggled to find a topic that I could resonate with. But by sheer coincidence, I came across a book that highlighted the issue of violence against women in Kenya and it was then, out of curiosity, that I lurched into gender-related issues,” she explains.
Relentless pursuit for women’s emancipation…
The book became an eye opener for her and when she learnt that there were individuals and organisations working towards alleviating gender-based violence, Purity felt compelled to join this cause. She secured an internship in the advocacy department at Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), an organisation that works to promote and advance women’s rights through working towards a society free from all forms of violence against women.
“I used to accompany Anne Gathumbi, the then executive director at COVAW to various high–level meetings. It is in these meetings that I gained a lot of insight on the women rights movement,” she says.
Purity went on to be involved in mentorship of girls and young women at the institution. One of her highlights at COVAW was being part of the team that collected signatures from the public to petition the Kenyan government to ratify the Maputo Protocol – an African treaty advocating for comprehensive rights for women.
The rights included taking part in the political process, social and political equality with men, improved autonomy in women’s reproductive health decisions, and to put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM).
“I came face to face with victims of gender-based violence and listening to their stories was not only heartbreaking, but also served as a reminder that the efforts we were making towards fighting gender-based violence were going to directly make an impact,” she says.
Today, Purity is proud that she was part of those who contributed towards the protocol, which was eventually ratified in 2010.
She then transitioned to Young Women leadership Institute (YWLI), a feminist organization that was formed by a group of young women to address the intergenerational gap in the women’s movement.
YWLI recognizes that young women need a space to nurture their leadership capacities, and offer empowerment through different activities in leadership development, movement building, and sexuality programs.
She would go on to further her work with young women at the organisation by holding regular self-empowerment sessions.
As if the universe was steering her on the path to follow, Purity went on to work at the Education Centre for Women in Democracy (ECWD), an organisation that focuses on increasing the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions, with a focus on quality and capacity and to work towards the creation of a more conducive environment for the equal participation of women.
Efforts were made to prepare many women political aspirants in a bid to increase the number of women at the decision making table.
At the helm of Akili Dada…
Purity is the current executive director of Akili Dada – a leadership incubator working to increase young African women’s access to decision making – a position she has served for three years. Purity’s conviction is that for there to be more women representation in leadership, young girls need to be molded and mentored from an early age to take up leadership.
“It is difficult for a girl who has never led anywhere to wake up one day as a young woman and pursue a leadership position. Therefore, mentorship helps to tap into a girl’s potential as a leader within herself first so that she can gain the confidence to lead others,” she asserts.
As a result, Akili Dada has built a wealth of network of mentors who volunteer their time and expertise to train and guide young girls in high school. Overtime, the mentorship programme has been solidified to a skills-based mentoring programme that equips girls with skills that can make them relevant in the job market.
A beneficiary of scholarships from well-wishers having been brought up by her grandparents who struggled to educate her, Purity understands too well that giving a hand to a girl can totally transform her life. Thus Akili Dada offers scholarship programmes to girls in various national schools in Kenya.
“The recruitment process for the scholarships is rigorous and involves the girls applying for it and going through a series of interviews. We also have a support system beyond Akili Dada because we believe that while money is a key factor in accessing education, it is not the only factor. Therefore, we work with a community that includes the guardian/parent, the beneficiary, the school and Akili Dada,” she expounds.
Purity believes that by educating young girls, Akili Dada is contributing towards gender equality and empowerment by intentionally nurturing, equipping as well as bringing young girls into the gender-empowerment conversations because they are the next generation of African women who will carry on the work.
“We are focused on growing a generation of girls and young women who can articulate the issues that affect them and others. And education is a powerful tool that will give them a voice,” she says with much conviction.
Once the girls have completed high school, they are enrolled in Akili Dada’s one-year Gap programme as they wait to join college. During that year, they volunteer in community primary schools in Nairobi County.
“The 2015 cohort started a library project in Kawangware during their gap year and mobilised the public for books and stocked it up. The 2016 cohort started a soap-making project with parents in the schools they were attached to in a bid to equip them with a skill they could use to earn some income,” she explains.
Akili Dada also runs an Innovation in Leadership Programme that focuses on young women over 18 years of age.
This programme works mainly with out of school young women and university students on leadership and leadership development. Recently, Akili Dada began working with young women political aspirants eyeing the 2017 general elections with an aim of increasing the number of young women vying for elective positions.
In addition, the organisation has a one-year fellowship programme that runs across East Africa that helps nurture young women’s projects through funding and training on how to run a start-up. This is Akili Dada’s way of passing along some of the lessons they have learnt along the way, so that these new start-ups’ learning curve is not as steep as it was for those who went ahead of them.
The programme echoes Michelle Obama’s words: “When you have worked hard and done well and walked through the doorway of opportunity, you do not slum it shut behind you, you reach back.”
The mother of one, who has been married for five years to Antony Muchiri, a quantity surveyor, says having a supportive spouse has been instrumental in her success. In addition, being Christians, Purity and Antony are intentional about ensuring their faith is key in how they live their lives.
Asked how a woman can implement this year’s International Women’s Day theme which is “Be bold for change” Purity says in conclusion, “Start by believing in yourself and overcome self-doubt through daily motivation and the rest will fall in place, one step at a time.”