PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Judge (Kenya)
By Stephen Muthoka Mutie, Ph.D.
Effie Owuor’s life is a journey replete with experiences that have left an indelible mark in the lives of the women and children of Kenya. Being a trailblazer par excellence, retired Lady Justice Effie Owuor has been a source of immense inspiration to women’s empowerment, leadership, and social mobility in Kenya. Often when women take leadership positions on the global stage, breaking the glass ceiling in business, education, and law, it is through the efforts of women pioneers that have opened the doors of opportunity. Despite being labeled rebels, toxic feminists, or trouble makers, these pioneers relentlessly continued their work, leading to the realization of the freedoms women have today and paving the way for women to continue fighting for equality. Effie Owuor is one such pioneer.
Owuor was born in 1943 in Kakamega County, Kenya, during Kenya’s colonial period. Owuor was among the few women who had access to education during the colonial era. She attended Butere Girls High School where she completed her Ordinary levels from 1958 to 1961. She then joined Alliance Girls where she completed her Advanced levels by 1963. She later joined the University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she pursued her Bachelor’s degree in law.
Her outstanding career began as a State Counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers where she was appointed as Resident Magistrate in 1971 and later elevated to Senior Magistrate. As a Magistrate, Owuor presided over purely criminal matters for ten years. A stint at the State Law Office in 1967 was the beginning of her ascent, becoming the first woman State Counsel and first woman prosecutor with a resident magistrate and senior magistrate’s appointments. In 1983, President Moi appointed her to the High Court where she took her place as the first woman judge. At the High Court and later at the Court of Appeal, she presided over complex civil, criminal, and constitutional cases and appeals. In her tenure as a judge, she chaired and was commissioner of various task forces. Notably, together with Cecil Miller and C.B. Madan, in 1983 she was appointed by the government to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the conduct and corruption allegations against former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
As her career progressed, she held a series of “firsts”, including first Kenyan woman to receive a law degree from the University of Dar es Salaam; first woman prosecutor in Kenya’s Office of the Attorney General; first woman to become a magistrate and a senior resident magistrate; first woman judge in Kenya; first woman judge on the Court of Appeal of Kenya; and first woman to sit on a Commission of Inquiry of monumental historical significance in Kenya’s political history.
A mother of six, Owuor is not only an exacting jurist but also a strong advocate of women’s and children’s rights throughout her legal career. She was instrumental in stewarding the development of the Children’s Act and served as Kenya’s Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, a role that garnered her special commendation from the UN Secretary-General. As a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF, Owuor’s special role was in advocacy, fundraising, and highlighting the rights and plight of children in need of special protection. Today, Kenyan children are protected by the progressive Children’s Act of 2001, implemented because of her advocacy in her position as Chair of the National Task Force on laws relating to children from 1992 to 1996.
Much of Owuor’s 33 years of service was dedicated to advocating for women’s rights and emancipation. Unfortunately, when people discuss the advances for women's rights, especially in the Marriage Bill and the Constitution, little is mentioned of her, a fate that characterizes the legacies of women pioneers in Kenya: a deliberate forgetting of the contributions of women. Owuor chaired the Task Force on Implementation of the Sexual Offences Act (“TFSOA” or “Task Force”), which was established by the Attorney General on March 16, 2007. The Task Force’s mandate was to oversee the implementation of Kenya’s 2006 Sexual Offences Act and was extended to continue its work to 2012. Its membership included representatives from both government and civil society, with its leadership vested in Owuor.
Despite sitting on task forces that review discriminatory laws against women, the death of Owuor’s husband brought calls for her to follow the Luo customs of widow inheritance. Contrary to the custom, Owuor stood her ground and didn’t allow the application of the discriminatory practice. Owuor objected against the Luo belief that when a man died, his wife was defiled by an evil spirit which then had to be cleansed by having sexual intercourse with a social misfit. In her attack, Owuor posed the question: "What is dirty about me that requires to be cleansed; what good is there for widows in the custom?" She called the practice repugnant and averred that it should not be practiced in modern society. As a prominent leader, Owuor's attack on widow cleansing and inheritance reverberated everywhere in Kenya. It generated a heated debate on the relevance of the practice as the country approached the new millennium.
Owuor also consults for various national institutions, governments, and non-governmental institutions within the country and the region and has written and presented several papers and opinions on justice, governance and human rights issues, children's rights, and gender inclusion. In recognition of her work, Owuor was awarded the Second Class of the Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS). These commendations are given to recipients on the advice of the National Honours and Awards Committee in the Office of the President. According to the National Honours Act, those who merit the decoration include a person who exhibits exemplary qualities; achievements of heroism, patriotism, or leadership; or one who has made an exemplary contribution to the country in the economic, scientific, academic, sports, journalism, business, security or other fields. She was also recognized in the UNICEF Millennium State of the World’s Children Report as a fierce advocate of children’s rights.
She took early retirement in 2003 due to an accusation of corruption by the Aaron Ringera “radical surgery” anti-corruption report. In conclusion, Owuor embodies the spirit of a woman pioneer. Breaking the 96-year pattern of men only in the judiciary, she presided over a diverse set of cases and championed women’s and children’s rights throughout her career. Owuor’s career leaves a legacy of passion and commitment to advancing human rights and serves as an example for those wishing to follow her.