Binaifer Nowrojee: A lawyer who became first Kenya female to head a global entity

Lawyer Binaifer Nowrojee, a daughter of celebrated lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee. Starting from June 2024, she will be the president of the Open Society Foundations.

Photo credit: Pool

Growing up in Nairobi, as her father navigated the tides of the legal profession and the politics of the day, Binaifer Nowrojee, the first woman from the Global South to head the Open Society Foundations, picked up memories to last a lifetime.

She remembers the bike rides and the games she played with other children in Woodley, near Adams Arcade, Nairobi. She recalls her times with other children at Hospital Hill Primary School, and later at Loreto Convent, Msongari. She also has fond recollections of the many books she and her two siblings used to read at home, for their parents were book lovers.

“I grew up in a house full of books, where books of all types [were stocked]. We were encouraged to read,” she says.

“It was a very great place to grow up, and I think it prepared me well when I went out in the world. And it’s not just me; when I see other Kenyans succeeding elsewhere in the world, you see that Kenya produces leaders that can move beyond the borders to go out into the world and take on positions,” she tells Lifestyle.

But besides the fond memories, she remembers how she was denied an opportunity to join a Kenyan university because her last name was Nowrojee. Binaifer is one of the three children of celebrated lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee.

Today, living in the US and just taken up the leadership of a multibillion-dollar global civil society organisation, she believes her upbringing prepared her for the future.

“I was able to benefit in so many ways from everything that Kenya has to offer: its diversity, its entrepreneurial sense,” she says.

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She left Kenya for the US for higher education under strained circumstances. She had been denied a chance to join the university in Kenya because her father, Pheroze, was perceived to be anti-government.

At that time, Pheroze was trying to stop the excesses of the Daniel Arap Moi administration that was out to crush dissent.

“In one of his cases, he was able to represent the Nairobi Law Monthly magazine when it was banned and got the ban reversed. It was an important victory, and his work changed things,” she says. “I wasn’t admitted into university in Kenya because of the work of my father. Eventually, I went to the US where I studied and became a lawyer myself. I studied at Columbia University and Harvard Law School.”

The admission denial, she says, was not overtly stated, only that she received no replies.

“There was no response, but later on the vice chancellor apologised to my father and said they were sorry they weren’t able to take me at that time. They had received instructions,” Binaifer tells Lifestyle.

“This was the experience, not just of myself, but of many [Kenyans] at that time. There were people in Nyayo House being tortured, there were people held without trial. Any dissent, any discussion was dealt with very harshly, and so it was a very dark moment in Kenya’s history and I’m glad that we have overcome that,” she adds.

Her failure to secure a university education in Kenya was perhaps a blessing in disguise because Binaifer ended up studying at Ivy League institutions.

“These sorts of setbacks can either conquer you or they can challenge you to respond,” she says, noting that she was inspired by lawyers like Gitobu Imanyara, John Khaminwa and Willy Mutunga to push on.

“[They] put their necks out and had suffered for that.  These are the role models I grew up with,” she says.

She has even taught law at Harvard University.

“I stayed at Harvard beyond being a student. I taught at the law school, and I co-taught a course on human rights advocacy at the law school for several years before things got too busy for me,” says Binaifer.

“At Harvard, although not a full professor, I was the only Kenyan and the only Kenyan female teaching at the law school,” she says.

From academia, she went into civil society, and the Human Rights Watch was her station from 1993 until 2004 when she joined the OSF.

Having been at OSF for 20 years, she has held various roles. They are executive director for the organisation’s Open Society Initiative for East Africa for 10 years, regional director for Asia, for seven years, vice president for organisational transition, two years; vice president for programmes (2023 till her appointment as president). With that experience, she feels she is well-equipped to steer the organisation to its next phase.

Binaifer Nowrojee (centre) of the Open Society Foundations meeting with women’s leadership funders at the Open Society Foundations offices in New York, US on March 14, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

“In March, the board of Open Society Foundations unanimously named me to become the new president,” says Binaifer.

OSF is a grant-making network that supports initiatives that advance justice, education, public health and free speech.

The organisation spends around $1.5 billion (Sh196.5 billion) every year funding various initiatives across the globe. In Kenya, it supported the Kofi Annan-led talks that stopped the 2008 post-election violence, funded programmes that gave rise to the 2010 constitution, and sponsored the push for Nubians in Kibera to get a title deed, among others.

This is the first time in the history of OSF that a woman is the president of the organisation. It is also the first time that someone from the Global South (otherwise called the “Third World”) is holding that position.

“This is the first time that a woman has been appointed in 45 years to lead Open Society Foundations,” says Binaifer. “I’m proud and excited to be the first female president and the first from the Global South.”

OSF founder George Soros, a dollar billionaire, has tweeted only once this year. His only tweet after a nine-month hiatus was posted on March 11 and it was about Binaifer’s appointment, where he expressed confidence that she would further the organisation as a truly global body.

Soros, a Jew who escaped the Holocaust while living in Hungary, founded the organisation out of empathy for people who were facing persecution. Soros was in position 431 in the Forbes ranking of the world’s richest people by Thursday. He has been in the quest to fund initiatives that advocate for open societies since 1979.

“Soros’s philanthropy has been shaped by the belief that open society values underpin economic prosperity and political stability and are the strongest defence against autocracy,” says Binaifer.

Rape survivors

Asked to recount some of the highs in her career, Binaifer says one of her proudest moments is the role she played in the conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former Rwandese leader who was convicted of genocide under international law and whose conviction set a precedent that was a major win for women.

The win was that through her work at Human Rights Watch, Binaifer was able to incorporate sexual violence into the prosecution of genocidal crimes.

“I worked with rape survivors across Rwanda after the [1994] genocide to advocate for the prosecution of sexual violence as an international crime. When the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up, there had been no legal recognition that rape could be a crime identified through the courts, and so I worked with a lot of the sexual violence victims by pushing the court to help to amend and add the crimes that affected women,” explains Binaifer.

“We were successful in bringing one of the major cases called Akayesu that recognised that sexual violence could be a crime of genocide, and this legal precedent is still very much present in international law, helping survivors of sexual violence to get international justice.”

She took part in the Rwanda trials as an expert witness.

Binaifer Nowrojee (second right) with social leaders in Buenaventura, Colombia, on February 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

“Based on the documentation work I’d done at Human Rights Watch, I was asked by the court to serve as an expert witness. This was to look at patterns to establish that sexual violence was widespread and systematic during the genocide. I appeared in the court as an expert witness testifying against some of the 15 top military and government officials who were being charged with genocide,” says Binaifer.

Her rise to the helm of OSF is a win for women, and she encourages women to ooze confidence.

“Be confident in yourself. I have to thank both my parents for instilling that confidence in me. Also, growing up in Kenya, I was able to get a good grounding both in education and in terms of being able to navigate the world,” she says.

Finding a voice

To the woman finding a voice in a male-dominated field of leadership, Binaifer advises: “Over time, with work experience, you begin to find your feet. You begin to know your purpose and to find it. Also be reminded that even if you are the only one that looks like you in the room, your voice is still important.”

On the family side, Binaifer is married to a man of Ethiopian-Eritrean origin, and due to her lineage, she considers herself “very much a global citizen”.

Her lineage has chosen legal practice for three generations now. It started with Pheroze’s father, Achhroo Ram Kapila. Then Pheroze followed. Later, two of Pheroze’s three children, including Binaifer, became lawyers.

The family came from India to East Africa to work on the Kenya-Uganda railway and ended up creating a legal dynasty.

Pheroze’s grandfather was a train driver between Nairobi and Voi. His son, Pheroze’s father, chose law.

In a 2020 interview with a local publication, Pheroze said one of the cases his father litigated involved defending victims of British colonial oppression. Pheroze attended a court session with his father in 1953 and was convinced that defending people was the job he was cut for.

Pheroze is also an avid reader, a writer and an amateur painter. He has written a book titled A Kenyan Journey that documents the stories of his larger family vis-à-vis key moments in Kenya’s history.

 “I have not yet done that yet”,  Binaifer says, “but I still have some time left to do that. I hope that I will at a certain point have the time to write in the way that he has.”

Her father, she says, mentored her a great deal.

“I’ve learnt from my watching my father as a practising lawyer that law can be used to further the ends of justice and that by using the courts and the law, you can bring attention to things that are going wrong and even, through judgments, bring about actual change,” she says.

When she decided to pursue law, Binaifer says, her interest was in public, international law and human rights.

“My thesis [at Harvard] was looking at peacekeeping forces; the interaction of regional and the United Nations peacekeepers in the civil war in Liberia,” she notes.

“I became a lawyer because I believe in justice, and I wanted to use this degree to work to assist and support people who are struggling for basic human rights, and I’ve been able to do that through my career,” she adds with a tinge of pride.

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