The Making of an Icon - Martha Karua

From her humble origins that planted strong family values and the seeds of a leader within her, to her extensive and unique career that has spanned 30 years throughout the three branches of government, Hon. Martha Karua’s exemplary life has taught that not only should our leaders champion the fight for social and economic justice, but they should do so while embodying the values that we need to see in our country.

Here are the key moments of her life.

Martha Wangari Karua is the second born of eight siblings.  Her parents, Jackson Karua, a teacher, and Josephine Wanjiru, a small scale farmer and homemaker, brought her up in Kathande Kabare ward of Gichugu, Kirinyaga County with strong values and ethics of hard work. Like all children in rural areas, Martha helped in the household and farm when not in school. Her chores included fetching water from the river when taps were not running, weeding and performing other activities that children raised in rural areas do.

She attended Mugumo Primary School, thereafter Kabare Boarding School, and finally St Michael’s Boarding School Keruguya where she sat for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). She then attended Kiburia Girls Secondary School, Ngiriambu Girls Secondary School and Karoti Girls Secondary School where she sat for her O levels. She then proceeded to the then Nairobi Girls school for A levels, after which she joined The University of Nairobi to study law. She graduated with honors in 1980.

Unlike many, her career in public service was marked by humble beginnings. She first worked as a Magistrate rising to the rank of Senior Resident Magistrate before leaving at the end of her contract in July 1987 to found her law firm.

As a practicing lawyer, she became active in law society politics and got elected as a council member of the law society in 1989. As a council member, at great personal risk, she agitated for the expansion of the democratic space, upholding of the rule of law and respect for human rights, together with the leadership of the society.

She eventually joined national politics, getting elected as member of parliament for Gichugu in 1992, a seat she held for twenty years till 2013, when she vied unsuccessfully for President.

As a practicing lawyer she advanced human rights, paying special attention to women’s rights and constitutionalism, and breaking new ground in precedent setting cases. She also actively represented pro bono victims of politically instigated and sensitive cases; notable among them is the Koigi Wamwere treason trial where she represented the late lawyer and assistant minister Hon Mirugi Kariuki.

She is a second liberation hero who used her legal training to protect the poor and politically persecuted. In 2021 she was conferred with the rank of Senior Counsel.

Martha Karua has always been an active citizen, and when not in public service, a strong member of civil society. As a member of the leadership council of FIDA Kenya, she and others, including Chief Justice Martha Koome, championed human rights and the rights of women.

She was the founding Chair of the League of Women Voters and an active member of International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in the nineties. She is a renowned proponent of women’s rights, an unapologetic feminist and human rights and social justice advocate .

The story of Kenya’s struggle against KANU's dictatorship, aka The Second Liberation, would not be complete without Martha Karua. She was a strong voice for The Second Liberation, risking her liberty when she, along with other law society council members, were tried for politically motivated contempt of court charges. She endured harassment by police and agents of the dictatorial regime but was unrelenting in her pursuit of expanded democratic space or all Kenyans.

As an MP, Martha Karua made principled and courageous decisions, including walking out on President Moi. Martha Karua is among a small group of politicians who have demonstrated time and again that their principles and beliefs are more important than money or political expediency.

Martha Karua challenged gender stereotypes at every turn in her political and governance career. Against the odds, she was elected as the first woman MP for Gichugu, a pioneer paving the way for women in politics Kirinyaga County. Martha Karua was one of only six women MPs to be elected in 1992.

She was one of the most notable debaters of substance throughout her twenty years in parliament where she consistently championed for the people, advocating for equality, fighting against all marginalization along regions, tribes, or gender, upholding the rule of law, human rights, democracy, accountability, among a myriad of other societal and political issues.

As Minister of Water, she implemented water sector reforms that improved services by decentralizing water service delivery long before the 2010 devolution. These reforms had a catalytic effect, inspiring the Ministries of Energy and Roads to initiate reforms of their own that decentralized service delivery, leading to the creation of the Rural Electrification Agency, and several roads agencies such as Kenya Urban Roads and Kenya Rural Roads Authority.

As Minister for Justice she was lead negotiator for the government in the National Accord and Reconciliation talks. She presided over legislation that enabled the completion of the constitutional review leading to the 2010 constitution and helped create the institutions required to implement the National Accord and Reconciliation Act of 2008, such as the transitional constitutional court and the Interim Independent Electoral Commission that presided over the enactment of the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

Martha Karua is quite unique in having worked for all three branches of government, the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Executive. The breadth and depth of her expertise is a testament to her intellectual ability as well as her commitment to public service. She is the NARC Kenya party leader, a party that has continued to play a leading role in shaping national people-focused policies and discourse.

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