Women’s leadership in law in Kenya cannot be complete if it is limited to the judiciary. The women in law and leadership reports by the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) provide robust recommendations on changing the picture of women’s representation in law and leadership in Kenya.
Justice Martha Koome was sworn in as the first woman Chief Justice of the Republic of Kenya in 2022, joining a long list of women chief justices across Africa. Many analysts have characterized the 2010 Kenyan Constitution as a gender progressive framework that has catalyzed women’s representation in public life, including the appointment of Kenya's first woman chief justice. The IAWL reports on women in law and leadership in Kenya analyzes the intersectional barriers women face in accessing leadership positions in other sectors of the legal professions in Kenya.
Presently in Kenya, the offices of the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice, Chief Registrar of the Judiciary, Principal Judge of the Employment and Labour Relations Court, Registrar of the Supreme Court, Registrar of the High Court, Registrar of the Environment and Land Court and Registrar of Tribunals, among other courts, are occupied by women. These developments in women’s representation in leadership result from several factors, including the enforcement of legal and constitutional instruments, the shifting gendered norms about women as leaders in public life and the application of meritocratic standards in selection processes. The proactive leadership of seeking qualified women candidates and demands for transparency in the Judicial Services Commission interview practices are also enabling factors.
While the appointment of Chief Justice Martha Koome is a significant achievement for women and all Kenyan citizens, more work must be done to ensure gender parity in other areas of the legal profession. Only one woman, Ambassador Raychelle Omamo, has been chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), making women’s representation only 2% of all chairpersons. Three other women have served as vice chairpersons--- Lucy Kambuni (2003-2005), Carolyne Kamende Daudi (2020-2021) and Faith Moni (2022-2024), accounting for 6% of the vice chair leadership. Women’s representation in the leadership (chair and vice chair) of the LSK since the Law Society was formed in 1948 has therefore been at a paltry 4%.
In the legal academy, a few women have served as deans of law schools, including Patricia Kameri-Mbote, Winnie Kamau, Linda Musumba, Ruth Aura-Odhiambo, Sylvia Kang’ara, Fancy Too, and Nelly Wamaitha. No woman has ever been appointed Director of Public Prosecutions, Attorney General, or Solicitor General in the public sector. Despite the feminization of the legal and judicial professions in Kenya, with women making up over 44% of the bar, women are still underrepresented in the leadership of the Kenyan bar, legal academy, and public sector.
The appointment of Chief Justice Martha Koome is a promising indication that the structural and institutional views of women as leaders in Kenya's legal field are gradually evolving. How long will it take for women to be equally and equitably represented in all sectors of the Kenyan legal profession? In matri-legal feminism, I espouse an African-centered theoretical approach that privileges centering African women’s agency as active actors in public life. Women in Kenya have demonstrated their leadership skills, from their participation in independence movements to their role as economic actors in national development. But more must be done to change the picture of women’s leadership in law.
Drawing the curtain
Kenya almost got it right as a perfect example of how women’s symbolic (numeric) representation can lead to women’s equal representation in leadership. With women making up over 50% of the judiciary and 40% of the bar, there is hope for an incremental shift towards more women in leadership positions across all sectors. A truly holistic gender-inclusive legal profession in Kenya will require constant shifts in institutional and social perceptions about women’s leadership capabilities, accompanied by the elimination of institutional gatekeeping practices and the political will of the appointing bodies to apply gender-inclusive meritocratic standards. Beyond symbolic representation, women must be prepared to develop leadership skills to bring to the decision-making table. The Institute for African Women in Law’s five-year strategic plan for Women’s Excellence in Law and Leadership (WELL) will support the development of strong pipelines of women leaders across the different sectors of the legal professions. When women rise, their communities and nations rise!
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