EVELYNE OPONDO: Women rights activist invites herself to the table


Evelyne Opondo, Director, The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) during the interview at her Nairobi office along State House Crescent on January 4, 2022 PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

In these early days of the year, it’s quiet and deserted at Vienne Court where the offices of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) are.

Over on the fourth floor, in an even quieter and more deserted office, you can hear the voice of ICRW’s African Director, Evelyne Opondo echoing in the inside chambers.

She's on the phone, already shaking the bushes for women in matters of sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality.

This is what she has dabbled in for the last 20 years after her Law degree from Pune University, India and a master’s degree in Gender and Development from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

She is a board member of FP2030 and the Chairperson of the Advisory Board of the Reproductive Health Network – Kenya.

“I want to figure out a way to be more thoughtful in how I give back,” she says of the year’s reflections. She also wants what she does to be amplified globally. But she’s done waiting for the global invitation. She intends to invite herself.

What mood are you in in 2023?

Well, one of the things I'm prioritising this year is personal growth. I want to invest a lot more in my self-awareness. For a long time, I took that for granted.

It's only last year that I started to reflect on who I am, how I show up, and how that affects me moving forward. In 2023, I'm going to take it one day at a time.

Growing up, I prioritised certain things that I now don't care about. One of the things you realise as you grow up is how even those who seem like they have it together, don't necessarily have it together.

People are quick to admire others they perceive as successful but give little thought to what they go through behind the scenes.

It could be that they've been through a tough journey, or maybe they are still struggling with so many things. I have learned to appreciate that I don't necessarily have it all figured out and that I'm testing the waters.

And I am learning a lot of things along the way.

What sparked this need to be self-aware last year?

I joined a group called WomenLift Health which is on a leadership journey. The idea is to support one another to grow as leaders and part of that process is self-awareness.

Do you know how you want to show up?

(Chuckles) That is a really hard question. How do I want to show up? [Pause] With humility. It’s important to me that I am accessible at different levels.

I want to be respectful of people no matter how they show up because people have strong views about certain groups of people or on issues like abortion. I try to hold everyone with dignity no matter how they show up.

What made you choose this line of work?

My mother worked a lot with vulnerable groups in the village as a volunteer. She was always interested in women's leadership. Much later, my first job was at the Attorney-General’s office where I worked on succession matters.

My clients were poor and vulnerable widows with great challenges on matters pertaining administration of estates, particularly the identification and collection of assets and beneficiaries, litigation, and subsequent transfer of estates.

I also worked at FiDA and it was while there that I realised that there were areas that were more marginalised than others; like reproductive health, particularly abortions.

I challenged myself to delve into this because there was a great need to highlight that and advocate around it.

What research on women has surprised you the most?

I wouldn’t say surprised but the research done on the impact of Covid- 19 policy and its implications on women in the informal sector was quite telling.

Women in the informal sector did not benefit from the government's policy response. I’m talking about tax reliefs, an extension of the bank repayment loan period [they don’t take bank loans].

It is crucial for the government to be aware of gender implications when designing policies.

You studied in India for your undergrad. When you think of that period what pops up?

Oh my God. That's like the school of hard knocks. India was such a good lesson for us who went there. We learned to survive. And I think it also taught us to be humble in many ways.

Most of us were from middle-income families and depended on our parents who sent money every three months or so.

There were many instances when we didn't have money even for food. In some instances, we didn't pay rent for months, but you survived. We learned to hide.

I remember (chuckles) our landlord had an agent who would come with a bike. My roommate and I knew the sound of this bike and so before the guy would arrive we would vanish.

We'd be peeping at the terrace until he was gone and then come down.

So it was a lot of survival but also discipline in the sense of, as I said earlier on, you got this money but you had to figure out how to pay rent, buy clothes, food and make it last.

India was a good lesson in life if you didn’t derail and a lot of people derailed.


Evelyne Opondo, Director, The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) during the interview at her Nairobi office along State House Crescent on January 4, 2022 PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

What do you recall about your childhood, what did your parents do?

My parents are now retired teachers. Both retired as school inspectors. I grew up in Homa Bay county, at a place called Kendu Bay. It was a very simple life.

I didn’t know much beyond the village and that meant that I didn’t sweat too many things like, you know, how people would be so obsessed with big cars and houses. I was okay where I was.

So what drove you to leave the village, to want more?

[Pause] That’s a hard one.

Did you want more?

[Chuckles) I'm not sure. But my mom played a big role in how I turned out. She was a great inspiration for me. In the village, she was a teacher, but she was more like a leader.

Do you know those teachers who help shape a lot of things? She was in Maendeleo ya Wanawake. She was doing a lot of these women empowerment sorts of things. She motivated me in a lot of ways, and I feel like I'm a lot like my mom.

Do you have resolutions this year?

No, I don't even make resolutions.

Reflections, perhaps?

I want to grow in my career. I am in a position where my work covers the continent, but I want to get to that global level.

That's where I want to play. So it's looking at the steps I need to take towards a more global role and to be an active player. I would like to have conversations in global spaces, especially at a policy level.

I don’t want to wait to be invited, I want to actively seek those spaces and invite myself into them.

Lastly, I want to give more. Sure, I support a few people here and there but I want to figure out a way to be more thoughtful in how I give back.

There are many people who would do with just a little support to get them through. It wouldn’t hurt to support these people.

What's your fear now?

As a woman? We are seeing attacks on the progress we have made in terms of our rights or the gains that we've made whether it's on things such as reproductive rights, governance or leadership.

I was reading a research that showed that a lot of young people don't necessarily support women's leadership in spaces, like say politics.

They don't feel that women should be there. And yet we spent so many years making strides towards that, and doing affirmative action, and trying to get more women into the position of leadership.

It's scary that it's the young people now, those who are in their 20s who hold these views. I think the struggle is that they don't comprehend how much we have struggled to get to where we are.

It almost feels like we've gone back or we will go back and we need to invest more energy.

So the question is really how do we get them to that level because we will only be here for a while but we will need them to carry the agenda forward. That sometimes scares me.

Personal fears?

I just hope for good health and hope there will be no more Covid-19 or scary things like that. [Chuckles].

What do you do in your downtime?

[Pause] At my age all I want to do is rest. I love to walk to just clear my mind but a lot of the time if I get a moment to rest, I appreciate that. Or to spend time with my friends.

Children, pets?

No pets. But children, yes. Two boys, 13 and 11. I love them to bits. Thankfully right now we are not at that age where they are giving me headaches. But they challenge me quite a bit, especially the young one who is like me.

He speaks up and asks tough questions. He tells me things like, ‘you know you're not right, you don't have to always be the one who is right.’ [Laughs]

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