If pictures speak, then living just a moment with the person being photographed invites volumes of stories to tell. For Evelyn Opondo, it is her prim haircut and the green dress she has on when nation.africa visits her office in Kilimani, Nairobi that stand out.
Just like her hair, her demeanour is prim – not because she has walked in the corridors of justice for the sake of people society labelled undeserving, but because she did not give up. Not once. Her green dress, like herself, is naturally bold.
For 20 years, she has stayed put in her ‘boxing’ ring, armed with the law as her gloves, and the fight for women and sexual reproduction rights still goes on.
Today, she is the senior director at the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
“Advocacy,” she says, “I live for advocacy.”
When Ms Opondo left law school, she knew she was up for the task. She was admitted to the bar and became an advocate of the High Court. She then had a stint at the Department of the Public Trustee under Kenya’s Attorney General.
“It is there that the passion for what I do today bloomed,” she remarks.
Every day, she woke up only to be greeted with cases that weighed her down mentally, but her spirit was fuelled. She badly needed to burn and make things right.
“I got to engage with very poor people, families, especially widows who had been disinherited. I knew I wanted to work with such marginalised people, especially women,” Ms Opondo says.
That was around 2001. At the time, most women in Kenya lived with men they thought were their husbands because they had sired children together. Unfortunately, most of them were not legally married.
When an unfortunate event like death happened, they were prone to disinheritance. They could only run to the Public Trustee’s office because they could not afford lawyers… and they came in droves. Every day had a different story but the end point was one – their rights had been ripped off by moneyed or just selfish people.
“I felt as though the world had been unfair to them. I stood up and said enough is enough, I will fight the system till the end,” recounts Ms Opondo.
“We really had bad laws. With the succession laws, for example, it was not obvious that a woman would inherit from their husband. Priority was mostly given to the husband’s family. It could be the way the courts were interpreting the laws,” she explains.
The 2010 Constitution has changed many things. All children are now recognised, whether born in marriage or out of wedlock. The laws around matrimonial property have also changed, with women’s contributions now being valued more than it was previously.
It is no coincidence that she opted to study a Master’s specialising on gender. This has come when she is at the high table speaking on behalf of those at the hall’s back seat.
She left the Attorney General’s office for Fida-Kenya after six years. It is here (Fida-Kenya) that she immersed herself in female rights.
“We focused on all kinds of gender discrimination and women empowerment. We did a lot of land and property cases as well as reproductive rights. We had a number of child custody and maintenance cases,” she explains.
Days without food
“A typical Fida client is a very, very poor woman. It is a woman who has moved around looking for justice and comes to Fida as the last resort,” she adds.
Her humanity was tested at her new working station. When the women in destitute showed up there, some had gone for days without food. Some had travelled miles to get to Fida-Kenya and did not have a place to sleep. She had to add an imaginary job description just to see the women smile at the end of the day.
For some women who were in abusive marriages, the red lights had been flashed in their faces not once, but a number of times. They ignored the signs.
“We tried to encourage many women not to kill themselves. That they should find a way out. A number of times they were slow, hoping the person would change but it never happened. It does not always end well,” she narrates.
The recurring, emotionally draining cases took a toll on her. She was on the verge of losing it and almost took a break.
“The positive side of it is that you see human nature. It created some level of empathy within me. It helped me assess my own situations and I learnt not to appease society,” she says.
Ms Opondo says that in her line of advocacy, reproductive rights are the ultimate test. That apart from strong patriarchal existence, religion too, is part of the equation. And, for people who do not violently object to the ideas, some do not have the courage to speak about the issues raised.
“It is true to say, in women rights, everything seems to be controversial. We keep pushing the boundaries,” Ms Opondo says.
Abortion is one such controversy. It is highly stigmatised. Even the kind that is permissible by law.
“I’d rather we have a conversation than bury our heads on such issues. We need to resolve such issues because there are ways to prevent unintended pregnancies,” Ms Opondo says.
“When you look at sex education, information is power. Most adolescents lack that kind of information. We should then learn to give adolescents age-appropriate information,” she adds.
There is a lot more to resolve if only people had the courage to. There should be frequent talk around rape, contraceptives, emergency healthcare, stigma to name just but a few.
With the pandemic that saw an increase in girls getting pregnant, Ms Opondo says a generation in future, may have inadequate economic empowerment from girls.
“A lot of things come with pregnancy, some girls do not return to school and get married. That sort of devalues them. In future they may encounter gender-based violence,” she explains.
After doom comes bloom and her fight for sexual and reproductive rights has borne some fruit. In 2019, for instance, the Health ministry withdrew standard guidelines on abortion after it sent a circular to that effect. The court reinstated the guidelines and some training on how to implement them was done.
They have also helped a number of women in line of duty. A notable one, she says, was when they enabled two women, who had been detained for not paying hospital bills, to go home. The government has since declared detention of patients in health facilities illegal.
As she fights on, she urges the government to put our house in order because the mess is still glaring.
“I wish we had scientific data to guide our policies and have all our approach to solutions being driven by science,” Ms Opondo concludes.