The International Women’s Day (IWD) marked on March 8, celebrates the social, economic cultural and political achievements of women, and sets the tone for the month being Women’s Herstory month of choice.
Although many groups around the world adopt and promote the campaign theme from early in the year — this year it was press on for progress — it generally provides a unified direction to guide and galvanise collective action.
The campaign theme does not end on International Women’s Day.
Throughout the year many groups worldwide adopt the IWD campaign theme for further work, gender-focused initiatives, continuing activity and events.
As the month ends, The EastAfrican celebrates heroines in the region who have charted new paths, made a mark in their space against all odds and remained unrelenting in their quest to fulfil aspirations and dreams, not just for themselves but their communities too.
Some of these women have taken on roles and professions that were once considered exclusive for men. In the process, they are mentoring other women and making society better for all.
Here are some of the bold East African women we are celebrating:
- ESTHER MBABAZI
She is the first woman in Rwanda to get certified as a commercial airline pilot.
At the age of 24, Mbabazi has not only fulfilled her own childhood dreams, but also made history as the first female Rwandan pilot after successfully pursuing what she always aspired for.
Mbabazi was inspired by her father, a pilot too, who was killed in a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Mbabazi was eight years old.
Mbabazi, who is fluent in five languages, trained at the Soroti flight school in Uganda before being sponsored to continue her training in Florida, US, by the national carrier, RwandAir.
She now flies the company’s CRJ-900 regional jets across Africa. “Times have changed,” she says. “Women are out there working, technology has changed, and everyone has the brains to do something, now it’s not about how much bicep or how much energy you have.”
She was born in Burundi, where her family had moved to just before the Genocide against Tutsis in 1994, but they moved back to Rwanda in 1996.
- DIANE KARUSISI
A seasoned economist, she is currently the chief executive at the Bank of Kigali PLC, the largest commercial bank in Rwanda.
Prior to joining the bank, Dr Karusisi was the head of strategy and policy and chief economist at the office of the President.
Dr Karusisi also served at the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, where she oversaw the design and implementation of major surveys.
Before she moved back to Rwanda, Diane worked as a Fixed Income Portfolio Engineer at Credit Suisse in Zurich and taught statistics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Dr Karusisi currently serves as non-executive director on several boards, including the University of Rwanda and Rwanda Development Board.
Dr Karusisi studied economics, majoring in econometrics, and holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Fribourg. Her research areas mainly concentrated on Risk Modeling and Measurement.
Her doctoral thesis entitled “Dependency in Credit Portfolios: Modeling with Copula Functions” was published in 2009.
- ROSETTE CHANTAL RUGAMBA
She is synonymous with tourism having been in the travel and tourism industry for the past 24 years, in the UK, Uganda and Rwanda.
She led the revitalisation of the tourism industry as Director General of Rwanda Tourism and National Parks, and later as the deputy chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board.
During her eight-year tenure as the Head of Tourism and Conservation from 2003 to 2010, she was charged with revitalising tourism as a key economic driver for Rwanda in post-genocide era.
The number of tourists in the country grew from 13,000 to 790,000 and tourism became the number one foreign exchange earner.
She is a member of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s Global Ethics Committee (2017-2021) and also served as Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the UNWTO on sustainable tourism in Africa from 2010-2018.
She is on the board of Trade Mark East Africa – an agency that seeks the regions prosperity through trade. She also serves on the board of the African Parks Network, an organisation that seeks to address environmental conservation issues in Africa’s national parks.
She is also the President of Tourism in the Women’s Chamber of the Rwanda Private Sector Federation. Her other passions are mentoring young girls and supporting local communities.
She is the author of Comesa’s Sustainable Tourism Strategic Framework - which is the foundation for the development of a regional tourism strategy and policy.
Rugamba has been recognised by the East African Community Secretariat as one of the leading tourism and conservation strategists in the region. She is an avid traveller who believes that travel should be amazing, exciting, intriguing, rejuvenating, and memorable.
- EVELYN UMURERWA
At a time when the number of female journalists in Rwanda is shrinking, 18 years as a veteran journalist and Rwanda Television news anchor Evelyne Umurerwa believes it is time media houses treated female journalists as equals to their male counterparts.
Apart from anchoring Kinyarwanda bulletins, she currently hosts a show on RTV, Tinyunka urashoboye, which loosely translates to “be daring, you have what it takes” that seeks to empower girls and women. She has been producing it since 2010.
She says, “Globally female journalists have proved that they can do tough assignments that even included war and conflict coverage and deliver quality stories.”
She is, however, happy that her employer is progressive. “At the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, assignments are given based on abilities rather than gender and over the years it has proved the saying that ‘what a man can do, a woman can do’, sometimes even better,” she adds.
- MICHAELLA RUGWIZANGOGA
An engineer, she was recently appointed chief executive for Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda. She is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and a curator of the Kigali Hub.
The Global Shapers Community is an initiative from the World Economic Forum and a network of Hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievements and their drive to make a contribution to their communities.
She has been very active at the Kigali Hub which organises a public debate forum Twumve Twumve (Hear us, we hear you) an initiative to empower Rwandan youth through sharing of ideas and mentorship.
Twumve Twumve has run several campaigns including “Visa Free Africa” a campaign calling for a borderless Africa. Prior to her recent appointment, she was the project lead for the iAccelerator at Imbuto Foundation, a mentorship-driven acceleration programme, which aims to promote an entrepreneurial spirit among young people, and encourages them to think critically and creatively on issues related to sexual and reproductive health.
She is a published poet.
- LUCY MBABAZI
A passionate leader, speaker and advocate for Africa, she is the president of Girls in ICT Rwanda – a group of women professionals inspiring young Rwandan women to choose a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She is also at the forefront of promoting and encouraging young women to pursue careers in technology.
She holds a bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology and Management from La Roche College, as well as a Masters degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
She is currently the group manager for Push Payments at the EcoBank Transnational Inc and sits on several government boards dealing in ICT.
She was part of the team that lay the foundation for digitisation of Rwanda’s economy and financial inclusion; and was involved in the successful pilot of mVISA in Rwanda, now being implemented elsewhere in Africa and India.
- TETA ISIBO
She is the founder and creative force behind Inzuki Designs, a young Rwandan brand specialising in jewellery, accessories and interior decor.
Isibo is a self-taught designer and the founder of Inzuki. All her creations are hand-made using traditional craft skills and materials — she works with numerous local women’s co-operatives to create vibrant, quality pieces.
With no background in fashion or business, she quit her job as an urban planner in Kigali to launch Inzuki, which means “bees” in Kinyarwanda.
Inzuki has grown into a popular Rwandan brand and the company now retails its own products through a boutique located in the heart of Kigali City.
Isibo is now targeting international markets including the rest of Africa, Europe, Asia and North America through distributors and an online store.
She is part of an ever growing Rwandan cultural renaissance that is seeing growing innovation and an increasing number of young entrepreneurs and trendsetters propelling the country to the next level.
- DEMERE KITUNGA
She is a feminist, activist and advocate for literacy. She is the director of E&D Readership and Development Agency popularly known as Soma, through which she mentors free thinkers and creative communicators.
She describes herself thus; “I identify myself as a feminist because my world view is framed from the perspective of women’s rights to equality and human dignity.
“My life, my work and my relationships are fashioned in a way that allows me to constantly challenge any hindrance to those ideals, including analysing, organising and recruiting allies to this cause.”
She adds: “My passion is to promote readership as a way of empowering women, men, girls and boys to interrogate conventional knowledge, seek their own version of the truth and enjoy the world of letters as leisure, culture and a mode of learning.
“My greatest passion is being a part of a journey that leads a woman to reach the feminist ”aha!” moment, when her eyes open to see the power dynamics in her personal life and relationships.”
“In this era of ‘no alternatives,’ I see feminist ideology and politics to be the only viable alternative paradigm,” she says.
- NGASUMA KANYEKA
She is a communications expert and a thought leader on economic growth and development in Africa, and is currently the deputy director for USAid Tanzania Youth Economic Empowerment Activity, a $20 million project on youth economic empowerment in rural agribusiness value chains in Mbeya, Iringa and Zanzibar.
The project uses a three pronged approach to innovate for results; create jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities and impart life skills and leadership skills.
Ultimately, her job is to “connect youth to opportunities” that foster their wellbeing and grow their income.
- MWANDALE MWANYEKWA
She is self-taught sculptor and life drawing artist, in a field dominated by men. “Big Mama“ as she likes to be called has been expressing herself through this art form for the past 20 years.
She is the owner of Dar es Salaam’s Big Mama’s Woodworks and has been creating sculptures around Africa and beyond.
On what motivates her to create. art for the public she says: “I want to be remembered for something when I’ve passed, not die like a dog with nothing to show for it. She has been curating exhibitions and organising production of sculptures not only under her NGO, Women art Creators, but others too. Her most recent project was the International Women’s Day Exhibition titled Choices at Alliance Française in Dar es Salaam.
- CHRISTINE NTAHE
Christine Ntahe is a veteran journalist who worked for the state broadcaster for 30 years. She is highly regarded for her charity work in the country.
Every Sunday, she hosts more than 200 orphans and street children for lunch at her home. They gave her the nickname Mama Dimanche, which literally means Mama Sunday.
Ntahe lost her father at a the age of 13, and lived a difficult life that saw her drop out of secondary school. At the age of 20, she joined the Burundi National Radio, and 10 years later she started a radio programme for children to voice their concerns and tell their stories.
After spending 20 years producing the children’s programme, her retirement in 1999 was not the end of her work with children. She knew first hand the problems Burundian children faced and therefore chose to continue with the feeding project. She felt obliged and was attached to the needy orphans and street children.
Now in retirement, she relies on good Samaritans for the food and clothes for the children in need.
Ntahe has won both national and international awards, and was selected among the 1000 peace women across the globe.
She says just like Christians go to church on Sundays, she dedicates hers to feeding the needy children at her home and interacting with them as she mentors them.
- LYDIA NSEKERA
Nkesera is synonymous with football, not just in Burundi but also on the continent. Her leadership in football and sports in general started when she became head of a Burundian women’s football club and then president of the Burundi Football Federation from 2004 to 2013.
Her involvement in different aspects of the game culminated in election in 2013 to the executive committee of the Federation of International Football Association (Fifa), becoming the first woman member. She wa also a member of the Burundi National Olympic Committee.
In 2006 she was a member of the Organising Committee of the 5th Africa women’s football championships. She was also a member of the Women’s Football Commission of the African Football Confederation until 2012.
She also served as member of the executive committee of the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations from 2007 to 2011 and also as member of the Organising Committee of the Olympic football tournaments in Beijing (2008).
Between 2011 and 2013, she was a member then president of the Women’s Football and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Commission. Nkesera has a degree in Economic and Administrative Sciences and says she never thought she could be at one time in sports.
- DENISE NKURUNZIZA
As the First Lady of Burundi, she runs several projects for women empowerment. She founded BUNTU Foundation in 2005 when her husband became president. The foundation helps vulnerable women and children.
In 2011 she established an orphanage, 'Umusamariya Mwiza', meaning Good Samaritan, for babies whose mothers died while giving birth and those whose mothers died when they were still toddlers.
Currently the orphanage is home to 21 babies. She spends most of her time visiting new mothers.
Most of her charity work is inspired by her life As a young mother, her husband left to join the National Council for the Defense of Democracy- Force for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) in April 1995. She was four months pregnant and had a toddler.
She spends much of her time giving support to nursing mothers, visiting maternity wards around the country and providing support to those in need.
As an advocate for education, she started a project to improve knowledge and skills. She built a secondary technical school in Buye which today hosts 230 students studying tourism and technologies, to be employed in the agro-food Industry in the country.
- ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
As a renowned peacemaker, Wairimu, is articulate, engaged and enduringly optimistic.
She chose a path travelled by few women after she experienced the effects of conflict first hand during the 2007/2008 post-election crisis in Kenya, while working for the National Cohesion and Integration Commission in Kenya.
She then moved to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and has been mediating armed conflict in Nigeria for six years now.
Last November, she was awarded the Global Pluralism Award 2017/2018 by the Aga Khan Foundation and received 50,000 Canadian dollars ($38,787).
She ledged to use the money to up a team of women mediators across Africa. This February she was awarded the Jack Blaney Award for Dialogue from the Simon Fraser University in Canada, in recognition of her work among armed groups.
To date, she has brokered peace amongst 29 ethnic communities of Kaduna and the 56 ethnic communities of the Southern Plateau in Nigeria, but still believes her work is far from over.
She has written several books, and Kenya; Beyond Ethnicism is currently being used as curriculum material for teachers on how to bridge diversity.
- KENTICE TIKOLO
She took up sports as a hobby and in 2016 became the chairman of Wazito Football Club — a team currently playing in Kenya’s Super League, one tier below the Kenya Premier League.
She has been raising the bar in football management since her appointment through sheer tenacity and asking tough questions.
Wazito FC, a club that nurtures and exploits talent started out as a small informal group of University of Nairobi alumni and younger football players.
Currently, the team has a proper management structure with a board made of professionals. “As a joke, we decided to enter the team in the county league and won.
“We then went on to the national league and won, and last year promoted to the national Super League and are currently in the national Premier League, ” said Tikolo, a trained strategic communications expert.
This earned her a seat on the Kenya Premier League Council. “I’m not a flower girl. I ask tough questions, I am determined to see change because right now, it’s a bit of a mystery how soccer is run in the country. I am causing discomfort there but I am determined that it must be done right. I don’t gain from it, the gain is to make sure players get their talent recognised. I feel strongly that we can get more players to be world-class if we manage the game better.”
Tikolo runs her own PR and communications firm, Impact Africa; is a board member of the Communications Authority of Kenya and has also been the president of the Public Relations Society of Kenya.
- FATUMA ADAN
A lawyer and peace ambassador in Marsabit, northern Kenya. A befitting description is “determined, resilient, courageous and daring” as she takes on repressive cultural and religious norms.
An ardent football fan from childhood, girls were forbidden to play the game in her community, and she later pushed back by using this very sport as a source of healing and reconciliation to overcome recurrent ethnic conflicts in Marsabit.
She passed a chance to practice law in Nairobi and set up the Horn of Africa Development Initiative (Hodi) to help the communities live in peace. The organisation’s flagship programme is the “Shoot to score, not to kill,” replacing bullets with footballs.
Her idea of having girls too playing football for peace horrified the community to the extent that girls who dared to play were abducted, raped, beaten, and married off or treated as outcasts.
Adan was unrelenting and rescued kidnapped girls and put them back to school. Today, 10 schools in Marsabit have all-girl football teams.
In 2011, Fatuma received the Stuttgart Peace Prize for “combining soccer and emancipation,” as well as the Hope Through Education Award, both of which came with cash prizes that enabled her to further her work.
She was also the first African woman to be elected in 2015 as a board member of the Streetfootballworld, an organisation that uses football for good.
Last year she was nominated to the Dream Team of the Global Goals World Cup. Her advice to women is: “Stop conforming and follow your passion. We just have one life to live, we have no second chance. Stop standing on the sideline and get into the game.”
- PHYLIS OMIDO
A community and environmental rights advocate based in Mombasa, she has made it her fight to have industries that are releasing hazardous lead waste in her neighbourhood of Owino Uhuru slum in Mombasa shut down and forced to pay compensation to its victims.
The smelters and government agencies didn’t believe her. Her son got lead poisoning in 2009, and later more children started getting ill and animals died. She petitioned the government, organised demonstrations, only to end up in court charged with public incitement in 2012.
While the three lead smelting factories closed down in April 2014, more than 3,000 people were already suffering from lead poisoning and more than 100 children have died.
Support came in 2012 after she registered the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, an organisation to fight for the voiceless.
She won the Goldman Award which came with $175,000 prize money in 2015, and she says this will go a long way in this lonely battle. “Do what’s right, don’t think. When you do what’s right, nature comes in and helps, she says.”
- LYDIAH OPIYO
A natural born philanthropist. Since April last year, she has been distributing clothes, food and household items to the needy in villages in western Kenya and eastern Uganda through her organisation, Passion to Share Foundation.
She chose to work in rural areas because she believes they tend to be forgotten.
Opiyo was moved to feed and clothe others, having spent her teenage years in an orphanage in Soweto slums in Nairobi. “The people who used to bring us food and pay our fees touched my heart.
“I promised to give back by helping in the smallest way that I can.” She has a team of 11 volunteers contributing money every month to fund their activities, which for now are done part time. The organisation also has mentorship programmes. “I always tell people, take a step, don’t wait to get rich.”
- PURITY KAGWIRIA
Passionate about education and leadership, Purity Kagwiria’s role as the chief executive at AkiliDada is to change lives. “The work I do is personal for me.
Were it not for people’s goodwill, I would have dropped out of high school and wouldn’t have made it through college due to lack of fees.
People who had no stake in my life were generous enough to invest. These small things keep me going and I am really committed to improving the lives of women.” Having worked in various organisations for women’s empowerment, she landed at AkiliDada in 2011 as a programme co-ordinator and the organisation’s main programme was giving scholarships.
With her background, she decided to grow AkiliDada to incorporate other programmes offering interventions in the lives of girls and young women.
Today, AkiliDada runs programmes on mentorship, leadership training, social enterprise, innovation, feminist movement building, policy and research.
It is nurturing a generation of young African women leaders, and operates in East Africa.
AkiliDada has also placed hundreds of girls in universities around the world. “We are very keen on cultivating university relationships, so that all these girls get global perspectives.
This is the African century and we want to have our girls look at themselves as global citizens and where they come from should not be a barrier to success.”
Mentorship is central to AkiliDada’s work and the organisation’s staff have adopted a centre for delinquent girls in Nairobi as their personal CSR project, using their personal funds and time. Kagwiria and AkiliDada staff are the big sisters many forgotten girls have never had.
- DR MARIA BAYUBWA SENKEZI
Dr Maria Bayubwa Senkezi is the chairwoman of the Joint Energy and Environments Projects (JEEP) a 100 per cent women–owned enterprise in central Uganda.
The project seeks to install six green power units in Kalangala district, a remote island in Lake Victoria where fishing is the main economic activity.
The six power houses will each have solar-powered cold room facilities for fish preservation, phone charging facilities and solar home systems for sale.
These green power units are expected to pay a portion of their profits to JEEP to be used to replicate the model throughout the region thus ensuring jobs and generating income for the women who own and run them.
Currently, JEEP constructs energy saving stoves for families, schools, health facilities, restaurants, prisons and even army barracks. The stoves are smokeless, creating healthier kitchen environments.
They cook faster and save over 60 per cent of firewood required by the traditional three stones fire place. Firewood savings usually pay for the cost of one stove after one year. JEEP requires a down payment of only 85 per cent before construction.
In 2015, JEEP joined FAO Uganda in the global climate change alliance project to train people in the cattle corridor about the impact of climate change and to provide quick and serious interventions to avoid further environmental damage.
JEEP was contracted to provide green energy stoves to reduce logging, establish tree nurseries and manage them in a project to encourage tree planting.
JEEP has trained 336 farmers under the theme “Together we can.”