When I was a little girl growing up in Nakuru, Kenya, the folk stories I was told by my grandmother, mother and aunties and even the cartoons I watched always had a hero who saved the day. The hero prevented bad things from happening to people and stopped bad people from harming others.
I heard stories about old men kidnapping girls who had gone to fetch firewood in the forest. I saw a cartoon of a girl being bullied by a group of mean boys on her way to school. Then the hero would come to the rescue.
I believe these stories were what first sparked my passion for human rights. They opened my eyes to the very real threats to girls in my community, from physical violence to early marriage, as well as to the day-to-day plight of being a girl or woman.
Girls seemed to take on most of the household chores while boys played with their friends. Within my extended family, I noticed that the women worked from early morning into the wee hours of the night while men retired to bed early. It didn’t matter if the women had day jobs or not.
We girls were not excluded. We could only go to sleep once all the chores were done whereas the boys, like the men, could retire earlier. And when our families had visitors—visitors who could come any day and at any time—our work was doubled. To a large extent, this affected our school performance. Unlike the boys in our family, we had less time to study and sometimes no time to study at all.
While my grandmother raised her family with the belief that girls and boys are equal, our patriarchal society operated differently. This was in the 1960s, a decade before the feminist movements of the 1970s called for women’s employment opportunities outside the home. So when my mother left home, she had society’s expectations to answer to. This meant putting others before her and seeing men as superior to women.
She took all this in stride. Together with my aunties’, my mother’s needs, including food, healthcare, and opportunities for personal development, always came second. I saw all this and also that a majority of my aunties were physically and emotionally abused by their husbands. Sadly, they were forced to stay in violent marriages because society would have judged them harshly if they didn’t.
When I joined high school, I had the courage to start my own Model United Nations Club in order to strengthen my understanding of human rights and the role of the UN. In the club I learned that I could be a great advocate for human rights and used it as a channel to speak out on human rights issues in Kenya.
As I got older, I developed a closer relationship with my mother and grandmother who openly spoke to me about being a great woman. In their words, a great woman was an educated woman who was full of confidence and courage and had the passion to go after her dreams.
I was a shy girl though. I remember my mother telling me that fear would make me lose out on many opportunities life had to offer. I felt like, through me, she was trying to achieve her dreams of having a fulfilled life. She stressed that my generation, unlike hers, was exposed to numerous opportunities and she encouraged me to be brave and go after them.
She was right. Women in my generation were bucking the norms of hers. They were delaying starting a family in order to access higher education, start a business, set up an organization to do work they were passionate about, pursue a profession previously reserved for men, travel the world, and learn about different cultures. As a result, they had better health and an improved state of socio-economic well-being.
I am grateful to my grandmother and my mother for guiding me through life with advice that has propelled me to be an informed, inspired woman who is full of purpose.
They told me that nothing comes easy and to never settle. In my grandmother’s words, “You can choose to be a hen or an eagle. Both are good animals, but one is great because it has unwavering vision and stamina to achieve its goal.”
Because of their guidance, I received a university education and went on to become a women’s rights champion.
Today I empower young people, especially girls and young women, with skills, information, and knowledge on women’s rights, gender equality, and violence prevention through a non-profit organization I founded two years called Impart Change. Impart Change holds workshops, trainings, and forums for dialogue at community centers and schools and works mainly with youth from informal settlements or slum areas.
For this work I’ve been recognized by organizations such as the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the United Nations, and the United States Institute of Peace. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak at various international forums and conferences, making calls for the inclusion of women and girls in policy development and the increased investment in girls’ education, among others.
I believe that it is my responsibility to empower the next generation of women leaders so as to pass on the same mantle that my grandmother and mother passed to me. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Thanks to them, I now see a brighter future for women and girls in Kenya.
Yvonne Akoth is a contributor from Kenya. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.