Phoebe Asiyo – Political veteran with a heart for welfare

Phoebe Asiyo is a veteran politician with a heart for the welfare of others. Besides being the first female superintendent of the Kenya Prisons Service, she successfully vied for the Karachuonyo Constituency seat in 1979 and was the MP until 1997, when she opted not to run. Although retired from politics, she is still actively involved in development affairs of the people of Karachuonyo and Kenya at large.

Phoebe Muga Asiyo’s journey towards leadership and as a champion of the women’s movement has been nothing short of exciting. Even now, well into her 80s, she remains active – she believes an African woman should never retire because she remains relevant to her family and society throughout her life.

I also realised that most women were sentenced for petty offences because they lacked the confidence to articulate themselves in court

Born the youngest of five children in Kendu Bay, Homa Bay County, in 1934, Asiyo’s father, a Seventh Day Adventist church pastor, encouraged her to work hard and excel in school. She did, and managed to join the Embu Teachers Training College after secondary school. After her training, she got married and moved to Nairobi, where she taught at Pumwani School before she joined the City Council of Nairobi as a social worker.

It was during this time that the state of emergency was declared by the British colonial government in its attempts to suppress the struggle for independence. Thousands of Kenyans were arrested and held in detention camps where they were tortured and killed. Others simply disappeared, leaving many children orphaned or abandoned.

“I was moved by the plight of destitute children. I picked them up and took them to Edelvale Home, the only children’s home in Nairobi at that time,” Asiyo recalls. She also took in two children whom she brought up as her own. “The emergency period left an indelible mark on me. It opened my eyes to the injustices committed by the colonial government.”

The fight for independence aroused in her a consciousness around human rights issues. The state of emergency created social challenges and as a result, affluent white women in East Africa (then consisting of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika – today’s Tanzania) formed the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation in 1956. The agenda was to reach out to African women and provide them with social welfare.

“I joined the organisation in 1957 and was appalled by the open prejudice shown by white women towards African women, whose ideas they ignored,” she recalls. “With time, African women realised that the organisation’s objectives were irrelevant to them.”

Coincidentally, the pan-African women’s movement was taking root in Kenya, spearheaded by Margaret Wambui Kenyatta (daughter of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta). This allowed Africans to take a more active role in affairs that affected them.

In 1959, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake held elections and Asiyo was elected the first African chairperson. She mobilised women to agree on the issues to focus on and they identified agriculture, food security and family planning.

“We laid down structures from national to sub-location levels, making Maendeleo Ya Wanawake the best-structured organisation in Kenya. Through our activities, we improved women’s health and achieved food security, nutrition and hygiene.”

Women were also empowered and encouraged to elect their own leaders. Corruption was unheard of in those days, according to Asiyo, who hastens to add that tension was, however, rife in the country as independence was approaching.

Priscilla Abwao, who in 1961 was  the first woman to be nominated to the Legislative Council (today’s Parliament), sought permission from Governor Patrick Renison to visit Jomo Kenyatta, who was a political prisoner detained in Lodwar.

“I led the women’s delegation. We wanted to know what role women would play in independent Kenya,” says Asiyo. “Kenyatta paid keen interest in what we had to say and assured us that he would work to safeguard the interests of women.”

The visit bore fruit and consequently, the first Kenya African National Union (KANU) party manifesto stated that the government would work with women.

Asiyo recalls that after independence in 1963, there was a great sense of nationhood and tribalism was frowned upon. “As I look back, I feel saddened that children are growing up in a very tribalistic society. I envy Tanzania because they have maintained nationhood and do not promote tribalism.” She asserts that Kenya must deliberately develop programmes that will help people experience a renewed sense of belonging.

When she was appointed head of the Women’s Prisons in 1962, Asiyo relinquished her leadership position at Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. As the first woman superintendent of prisons, she had to contend with various challenges, most notably male chauvinism.

“There were male prison guards of lower rank who openly said they could not salute me because I was a woman. I learned to change direction to spare them the embarrassment,” says the holder of diplomas in Sociology and Prisons from Wakefield College in England, and Community Development and Social Work from Mount Carmel College in Israel.

Lack of sanitary towels for the prisoners was another matter Asiyo had to address. She pushed for and secured the provision of free sanitary towels for inmates. “The service is still there to date,” she notes with satisfaction.

“I also realised that most women were sentenced for petty offences because they lacked the confidence to articulate themselves in court.” She says there is a case she will never forget. A woman had been sentenced to death for killing her husband and Asiyo decided to follow up the case.

“I found that it was actually the woman’s 15-year-old son that had killed his father for physically abusing his mother,” she recalls. Because the mother didn’t want her son arrested, she reported the incident to the police and implicated herself. Although she had pleaded guilty to murder, Asiyo pushed to have the death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. “I’m glad the woman was later released because of good conduct.” That incident turned Asiyo into a crusader against the death penalty.

In 1970, she was appointed head of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. At the time, the country had stringent laws barring unmarried people from adopting children. President Kenyatta set up a commission to seek public views on the matter and Asiyo was part of it. The commission collected views from different parts of the country and its recommendations resulted in the progressive child adoption laws we have today.

In 1979, Asiyo decided to join politics and vied for the Karachuonyo Constituency parliamentary seat.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Women are expected to be three times more knowledgeable than men to excel in any field. They must rise up to the task because nothing in life comes easy.”
  • “Women should always aim to offer servant leadership. You can never go wrong when you meet the needs of the people and assure them that you are there for them.”
  • “Girls should take education seriously because education is the game changer.”
  • “There is need to create cordial working partnerships between men and women so we can succeed.”
  • “For a leader, family should always come first because it is the cornerstone of society.”
  • “Women should never retire; they continue to play crucial roles in their families and communities.”

“It was a tough race because I was running against the incumbent, who was the ruling party (KANU) chairman,” she narrates. “The campaigns were intense because people were not accustomed to women leaders. But I soldiered on and eventually won by a landslide.”

As an MP, Asiyo was actively involved in women development activities and got a lot of support from the donor community. Karachuonyo is semi-arid and prone to severe drought. The new MP introduced cottage industries, which entailed training women in economic activities that could be conducted in their homes such as spinning and weaving cotton, pottery, poultry rearing and vegetable farming.

“I also built schools for children with special needs,” she says, adding that the constituents worked well with her, which was a sign of their faith in her leadership.

With the coming of multi-party politics in 1992, she was re-elected on a Ford-Kenya party ticket. Although she opted not to run in the 1997 elections, she continues to serve the people of Karachuonyo and encourages former MPs to do likewise because it is all about service to the people.

The mother of five speaks fondly of her relationship with her family – both nuclear and extended. She reveals that her in-laws once sold cattle to finance her election campaigns. She encourages women leaders to give their families as much attention as they do their work and believes it is possible to have a healthy balance between the two.

The veteran politician is passionate about giving back to the community and mentors many upcoming women leaders at both county and national levels. She is also involved in community activities and local women’s groups.

She also has a passion for the youth, saying “the high level of youth unemployment is potentially catastrophic and should be addressed”. She urges the Government to invest in youths because they drive the economy.

Asiyo was a member of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, whose outcome was the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, that led to devolution. On the devolved system of government, she says, “Devolution, if well-implemented, could benefit wananchi and accelerate growth in areas that previous regimes marginalised.”

As a strong advocate for women’s causes, she was the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund for Women in Africa between 2002 and 2013. The fund has since been renamed UN Women. She shares that she is impressed with the current crop of Kenyan women leaders, whom she considers products of the affirmative action struggle.

Asiyo now spends most of her time at her Karachuonyo home. A regular day for her begins at 5am, when she heads straight for her farm to check on her fishponds, poultry and tree seedlings. During the day, she consults with community leaders, who call on her for advice.

Funded by the Allen & Overy law firm, she launched the Phoebe Asiyo Legal Aid Clinic at the Lang’ata Women’s Prison in July 2016. The clinic was launched alongside the Jones Day Lang’ata Women’s & Children’s Library and acts as a drop-in legal advice facility supervised by practising lawyers, who provide free legal advice for prisoners and staff. This is in line with the prison reforms programme.

A recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of York, Canada (2003), and Leigh High University in Pennsylvania, USA (2007), Asiyo hopes to see a woman president in Kenya during her lifetime.

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