With the two-thirds gender debate still raging on with no end in sight, 45-year-old Judith Pareno exemplifies that with the right support, women are able to climb to the highest leadership echelons. Judith, the chairperson of the National Election Board of Orange Democratic Party (ODM) and an elected member of the East African Legislative Assembly, defied the odds to rise to the top through diligence and support from those who understood women empowerment. ESTHER KIRAGU had a candid chat with her.

Judith Pareno is among the first female lawyers from the Maasai community and made history by becoming the first female member of parliament (MP) from the community to be elected to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) in Arusha, Tanzania. In 2014, Judith took over as the chair of the ODM election board tasked with overseeing all elections within the party; which is by no means a small feat for anyone. When I met her for this interview, I was so taken by her humility despite her many accomplishments.

Growing up in Maasai land where education for the girl-child was not a priority for many, Judith was fortunate to have parents who valued education. “My dad had two wives. My mother was the younger of the two wives with six children whereas the first wife had 10,” Judith explains.

She particularly enjoyed a close relationship with her dad, whose greatest wish was for her to get an education and carve her own path in life. Being a bright student, she made him proud by often emerging top of her class during her primary education in Enooretet Primary School in Mashuru, Kajiado.

Her education seemed to hang in balance when she lost her father to stroke while in form one at Kipsigis Girl’s High School. Her mother, a housewife, couldn’t afford to pay school fees but luckily, Judith’s father had left behind some livestock that enabled her complete her secondary education.

The eldest of her mother’s children, Judith took on responsibilities at a young age and went on to assist her mother bring up her siblings.

“I didn’t neglect my studies despite the additional responsibility of caring for my siblings. Through hard work, I excelled and got admission to the University of Nairobi to study law. I am sad that my dad didn’t live long enough to see my accomplishments, but I know he would have been so proud of me,” she says with obvious nostalgia.

It was at the University of Nairobi, Parklands Campus, that Judith met her husband, Stephen Pareno, also a law student who was two years ahead of her.

“A strong friendship formed between us and we got married right after I graduated. We have been married for twenty-two years and have four children – three sons and one daughter aged between 23 and 14 years,” she says of her family.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and this is true of Judith’s eldest son who has taken after his parents and is currently pursuing a degree in law.

Her second born is a civil engineering student while her third and her last born are in high school and primary school respectively.

Judith was fortunate to get a job as a lawyer soon after graduating and with the support of her husband, she educated her younger siblings, some of whom were still in primary school at the time.

Empower a woman and her community will prosper…

She says that growing up in harsh conditions in Maasai land exposed her to the oppression people go through in life. It is this experience that sprung in her an interest in law with the aim of fighting injustices. She had practiced law for sometime when she began her private practice – J N Pareno & Co advocates in 2001, which she runs with her husband.

Her passion for service saw her work with the youth and women at the grassroots level. She organised youth forums and strived to ease the burden of women in her community, who often trek for miles in search of water and firewood, by helping dig boreholes in many homes in Mashuru. This earned her the respect of the locals, prompting them to pick her to chair boards in various learning institutions in Kajiado and beyond.

She continues to work at grassroots levels where she has donated books to primary schools in Mashuru and taken up a project of purchasing sanitary towels for girls in Mashuru’s best-performing schools each year. She has also helped educate some of the needy children in her locality.

“Currently, I am in the process of testing a biogas project to maximise the use of cow dung and reduce the dependence on firewood. The project, however, has to grapple with and overcome the challenges of the nomadic lifestyle in my community especially during the dry seasons,” she explains.

Keen about upholding the best cultural practices of her community, Judith, together with the woman’s representative in Mashuru, began a cultural event in 2014 that brought together many women from her community to showcase their cultural artifacts such as beadwork and sell them.

“Plans are underway to develop this event with the partnership of the Export Promotion Council in order to develop local talent and incorporate capacity building forums for the community,” she explains

As a leader, Judith wishes the public and other leaders understood that development can only be achieved through unity despite political affiliations. “There is so much to be done in this country and much can be achieved through partnerships and unity,” she says.

Life in politics…

Judith’s passion for service saw her get into politics in 2006 with her first position being deputy secretary of Kajiado branch of the then Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

“My academic qualifications kept propelling me up the ladder and having worked with the locals for a while, they stood with me and raised me from one position to another,” she explains and clarifies that leadership is a chance to serve others.

And when LDP merged with various parties to form ODM in 2007, Judith was nominated by her party to be the coordinator of the ODM presidential elections in the entire South Rift region, where she supervised campaigns for various party positions.

Over time, her service and loyalty has seen her rise up from the secretary of the ODM national election board in 2008 to now chair of the board, taking charge of the party’s elections from the grassroots to the national level.

“I hope to make a difference by making ODM party elections and nominations more organised and successful,” says Judith who continues to make good use of her legal skills as she sits in the legal arm of ODM since 2008.

With her role as a member representing Kenya in the EALA, Judith is happy with some of the bills she and others have helped pass to boost trade in the East African region. “One such law is the one-stop border law, whose aim is to reduce the time taken to clear goods and services and as a result ensure smooth trade within East Africa,” she says, and adds that she is always grateful for every opportunity to serve others.

So how does she juggle all these roles? “It’s all about commitment and planning. My work involves lots of travelling, especially to the East African Parliament in Arusha and so I have had to do some proper planning to ensure all my responsibilities are attended to. I believe God has placed me in different positions for a reason and to fulfill my purpose in life and so I take all my responsibilities with the dedication they deserve. My success in life is thanks to God for His favour and the love and support of my family and community,” she says.

Judith’s take on the negative perceptions about women in politics is: “I don’t let it stop me. I do my best and let my work speak for itself. I am grateful that my husband has always supported me, believed in me and trusts me. When I am away, he assists by taking care of the children and I feel extremely blessed to have him in my life. All the same, despite my involving work, I still ensure I perform my responsibilities as a wife and mother.”

Judith believes it is the Maasai values she grew up with that have made her who she is today and has therefore retained some of the positive lifestyles of the Maasai culture albeit incorporating some modern aspects to it. For instance, she keeps high-grade livestock and grows some crops using the greenhouse technology. On weekends, she loves to travel upcountry with her family and unwind as she attends to her livestock and crops, and even milk the cows.

As we conclude this interview, Judith says, “My wish is that more women in this country would come out, believe in themselves and take up their space because women are a powerhouse of potential. And for the youth, make use of your energy and channel it to positive things. And be patient – if you are consistent, you will succeed.”

Published in September 2015