A veteran of the fight for women’s liberation from Kenya is guest speaker at a Cork charity’s fundraising event, writes
When Honorine Kiplagat was beginning her career in the male-dominated world of international development, the idea of a #MeToo movement would have met with the response: Me who?
It was the 1960s and women were all but invisible in the power structures of corporations, politics, public life, and even the global agencies that were meant to espouse equality.
That’s why it’s so exciting to Honorine, an 80-year-old veteran of the fight for women’s liberation, to see how things have changed.
“When I see this movement of #MeToo, I think how these problems were all there years ago but women could not go out in public and tell the world how they were exploited, how they were molested, how they were mistreated, because they would be ridiculed, they would be laughed at,” she says.
People would say: ‘Why did she allow herself to be used? What does she expect from us? This is a problem for herself.’
“But now women can speak out, they can be heard, they can go to court and I think that’s really, really important.
“You can not allow yourself to be enslaved the way that women have been before. You should free yourself now from fear and tell the world because the world is listening.”
For her part, Honorine has always tried to listen and bring to the fore the voices of girls and women with fewer opportunities than herself.
She’ll be doing the same on October 13, when she visits Ireland as guest speaker at a fundraising event for the Cork-born charity, Brighter Communities Worldwide, which works chiefly in Honorine’s adopted country of Kenya.
The country of her birth is Madagascar, where she was brought up in French colonial times with four sisters and a brother. Their father was a pastor and their mother was the daughter of a pastor — a happy coincidence that she believes was instrumental in providing a pathway in life very different from many of her peers.
“My father was really very liberated,” she says. “Usually in my time, by the age of 16 or 18, girls ended up married but my father and my mother did everything to keep us in school.
My father believed that God created man and women equally and they must be treated equally, respected equally, considered equally. So the faith of my father gave him a very strong belief that we must have the same opportunities.
Honorine initially worked as a teacher where she relished the chance to build confidence in her pupils, in particular the girls.
“It was an opportunity for me to create an environment where everyone has the right to speak out and the right to be heard. If you create that environment in the classroom, the children will take that lesson into the world.”
A girl guide since her own schooldays, Honorine remained passionate about the movement and became a leader, convinced that membership would foster independence and leadership skills in the young recruits.
However, it was when she left to pursue development studies in Paris that her own resourcefulness was tested. Before long she found herself posted to the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, and then to Ghana.
“I felt very much that I was in a minority in that office,” she says. “The majority were of course men, the director, the deputy director — all men. Men had all the power.
“But that’s what really made me more and more convinced that we need the men as our allies. The mindset must be changed for the men to accept the women as their equals.”
She already had some allies. Her father remained an inspiration to her and in Paris she had fallen for a fellow student who would become her husband and greatest supporter.
Bethuel Kiplagat was building his own career with the Kenya diplomatic service, rising to the rank of ambassador, but there was never a question of him expecting his wife to stay in the background.
“My portfolio was youth and women,” says Honorine. “I was really passionate about the empowerment of women in all fields. For myself, an African woman, I always saw that the women are the ones who feed the nation, they are ones in the farms, the one who did everything to get the money to pay school fees, to take the children to hospital.
“At the time there was a major campaign, the freedom from hunger campaign, and I knew it can not be
successful without the involvement of women — not only in the fields but in the places of power.”
When Bethuel was moved back to Kenya to a post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Honorine joined the newly formed United Nations Environment Programme that happened to have its headquarters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Her focus was still on youth and women and her task was to gender mainstream all policies and programmes — assessing them for their implications on both women and men to ensure all benefited equally.
Through this work, she became involved in the UN women’s conferences in Nairobi in 1985 and the follow-up in Beijing in 1995, two massive events which would ultimately lead the UN to establish a dedicated organisation, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — known as UN Women — in 2010.
By then, Honorine had officially retired but in reality, she was as busy as ever. She had continued her involvement in girl guides becoming Kenya’s training commissioner, international commissioner, chief commissioner, and now national commissioner and chair of the board of trustees.
The only other time she was in Ireland was in 1999 when this country hosted the World Association of Girl Guides annual conference. Honorine recalls the delegates being invited to dinner at the Áras and being delighted to find a woman, Mary McAleese, in charge.
“But it’s not 50-50 yet, I don’t think?” she asks of the gender balance in Irish public life. She is not surprised to hear that it is not.
That’s because, she says, we need not only to continue talking about women’s liberation, but also the liberation of men.
“Women’s equality is really gender equality,” she says. “Gender equality is a liberation for women but also liberation for men — because men’s mindsets need to be liberated.
It is good for men because gender rights are human rights and without human rights, you can not have justice. These are not separate issues for men and women. They are all connected.
In Ireland, we may still have a way to go to ensure gender equality but in Kenya, the gap is much wider. Poverty and tradition still conspire against many girls, depriving them of education, job opportunities and independence.
Honorine is a founding member of the Starehe Girls School in Nairobi which provides free secondary education for impoverished girls.
She is also a founder of the Nairobi Hospice, a long-time volunteer at a counselling and training centre for people in need of psychological supports, a lay canon in the Anglican Church, a campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, and a supporter of safe homes and supports services for girls escaping such brutalities.
She’s also a mother of three, grandmother of three, and sadly, since just last year, a woman learning to embrace life without her beloved Bethuel.
And still she has found time to be a friend, mentor and cheerleader to a Cork charity. Brighter Communities Worldwide was set up by Cobh woman Maria Kidney, who was on holiday in Nairobi in 2000 when she was mugged and sought refuge in the headquarters of Kenyan Girl Guides.
That chance encounter and the friendship that followed changed Maria’s life — and 18 years later the charity, initially called Friends of Londiani, has helped change the lives of more than 300,000 Kenyans through essential sanitation, education, health and training programmes.
Their work can be as simple as building latrines or as complex as changing a culture where FGM is still performed, menstruating girls stay home from school, and young girls are sold off for marriage to elderly men.
What I see in Londiani is a real partnership,” says Maria. “The people don’t have the money to change how they live but they have the labour force and the will to work and that willingness to change and with financial help from Ireland they can make a big difference.
“The volunteers from Ireland work very hard to raise the money but when they come to Kenya, they don’t tell you what they give but what they receive because of what they learn. It is a great collaboration where everybody gives what they can give and does what they can do and everybody benefits. This is how we achieve change.”