Kenya: Musimbi Kanyoro

Every woman has the power; every woman has the potential; every woman can shape her destiny and the world around her.

— Musimbi Kanyoro

Since 1998, Musimbi Kanyoro (53) has been chief executive officer of the World Young Women’s Christian Association (Ywca). World Ywca reaches more than 25 million women and girls in 122 countries. It promotes leadership development of women of all ages. Musimbi holds a PhD in linguistics and a doctor of ministry. Dr Kanyoro is the first woman from the South to head the largest and oldest women’s ecumenical organization.

As the chief executive officer of the World Ywca, Musimbi Kanyoro has influenced the 150-year-old NGO to focus on the promotion of leadership for young women and to campaign against HIV and Aids. “I know I am walking a thin rope,” says the dynamic CEO when asked if advocating the use of condoms does not clash with traditional church doctrines. “But what is more important than saving lives? Women must be empowered to make their own, informed decisions." The lives of women, especially in Africa, are her major concern, having been influenced by her parents, who were health workers. Volunteering at a shelter for abused women, she became aware of women’s rights, culminating in the 1985 UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi. “I began a whole new education,” she remembers, “realizing that cultural traditions both nourish and imprison us, and that we must sift out the bad habits and only keep what makes us grow.” Born in rural Kenya, Musimbi and her nine siblings received a good education, supported by their parents, who considered this the best inheritance for their children. After the village primary school, she went to a girls-only secondary school, which she says “gave us the assurance that girls can do any subject and become whatever they want.” After her undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi, she obtained a PhD in linguistics at the University of Texas and later a doctor of ministry. After working on language research and training of Bible translators, she was active for ten years in the Lutheran World Federation. Musimbi has published 11 books and many articles on feminist theology, development and women’s leadership. After three decades of working with women, she knows: “We are all connected. Our life conditions may differ, but our problems are similar, and we must learn from each other.”

World Young Women’s Christian Association (Ywca)