Grace Onyang’o broke the ceiling, it’s time for her daughters to rebuild the house

By Irũngũ Houghton

Wednesday was International Women’s Day. Legendary public servant Grace Onyang’o (98) chose the moment to exit the national SMS group. Her legacy should leave us wondering why there are no more deliberate efforts to build women’s leadership in innovation and technology, this year’s theme.

Initially a trained teacher, Grace Onyang’o was 41 years old when she became Kenya’s first woman mayor in 1965. Four years later, she pressed through an authoritarian one-party state to be elected member of parliament for Kisumu Town on an opposition party ticket. Eulogised by national leaders and current Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Ny’ong’o, Nya’bungu (daughter of the bush) as those that loved her called her, shattered many other glass ceilings to set the pace for development projects in Kisumu.

While the nation and especially the nation’s women can be proud of her lifetime of service, we must ask what we are doing to accelerate the emergence of women in traditionally male-dominated fields. Sexist stereotypes that the women’s place is still in the home and the traditional family has never recovered from mothers leaving for professional occupations still abound. What if we imagined and actively worked towards women building not just their homes and families, but housing estates, huge commercial buildings, motorways, and cities? What if women were not only shattering leadership glass ceilings but also designing the floors, walls, and ceilings in the first place? What if gender equality was at the centre of 15 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product?

These preoccupations were at the forefront of the Women in Real Estate Legends and Leaders Nairobi event yesterday. Established in 2016, Women in Real Estate (WIRE) has rapidly grown into a very significant self-empowerment lobby for women architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, project managers, real estate developers, and others in the built industry. Under the leadership of outgoing President, Robyn T. Emerson, and a limited annual budget of under Kshs 2 million, the civic association has intentionally mentored, publicly profiled, and positioned its members to be influential across several of the industry’s professional associations and in government.

The last seven years have started to pay off. In 2023, WIRE Board member and Quantity Surveyor Jen Musyimi is the first female Institute of Quantity Surveyors of Kenya President. Engineer Grace Kagondu is the first female Vice President of the Institute of Engineers of Kenya. Architect Florence Nyole is Vice President of the Architectural Association of Kenya and a current candidate for the Presidency. With only two women vying for the Presidency, it is predictable women will lead the association again, the third in a row of five decades of previous male presidents.

Winnie Ngumi currently chairs the Kenya National Highways Authority Board and Kenya Green Building Society CEO Nasra Nanda is now a Member of the Nairobi County Assembly. Other WIRE members lead other various public, business, and civic councils and committees.

These efforts have caught the attention of both the State Department of Housing and Urban Development and more recently, the State House. Launching the 22-hectare Mavoko Sustainable Neighbourhood and Housing Programme in December 2022, President Ruto stated, “This will be the first project we are giving opportunities to female workers. Men have long colonized the construction industry, but it must change. The contractor will give opportunities to women so that we see that what men can do women can do better.”

The WIRE experience demonstrates the power of horizontal empowerment organising across women in different spaces and the benefits of an open-door policy by state officers for civic associations and NGOs. With voluntary passion and determination, spaces traditionally closed to women are opening up. Challenges that include discriminatory stereotypes, gender pay disparities, safety concerns with the lack of separate facilities for women or women-friendly equipment, sexual harassment and inadequate family support are starting to break down.

With very few resources, it is possible to recreate the legacy of the late Grace “Nya’bungu” Onyang’o and catalyse a new generation of innovative, technologically competent, and patriotic leaders.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]