International Women’s Day 2023: Interview with the Honourable Justice Martha Koome, EGH (Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart), Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya

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Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in rural Kenya, in a place known as Meru. I later joined law school and was admitted to the Kenyan bar in 1987. There were few women lawyers in Kenya at the time and I joined the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA-Kenya) upon my admission to the bar and was an active member in the organisation’s activities intended to protect the rights of women within a deeply patriarchal society.

In 1997, I was elected chairperson of FIDA-Kenya and I served the organisation for two consecutive terms. During my tenure in office, we focused on civic education and lobbying for more progressive laws that would protect the rights of women. We originated the concept notes and draft for a raft of laws that include the Sexual Offences Act, the Marriage Act, the Matrimonial Properties Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. We also actively participated in the constitution-making process championing the women’s agenda by advocating and lobbying for a gender-friendly constitution.

I then joined the bench in 2003 as a Judge of the High Court and subsequently was appointed a Judge of the Court of Appeal. I introduced and championed several reform initiatives on active case management and establishment of Court User Committees to enable a stakeholder involvement in coming up with interventions geared towards improving the efficiency of the courts. After serving as a judge for 18 years, in 2021 I was appointed as not only the 15th Chief Justice of the Republic of Kenya and the President of the Supreme Court but also the first woman to hold this position.

Just before I was appointed Chief Justice, I was the chairperson for the National Council on the Administration of Justice Taskforce on Children’s Matters, a multi-sectoral committee that reviewed and overhauled the policy and legal framework on the protection of the rights and welfare of children and overhauled the Kenyan justice sector to make it child friendly.

What made you decide to pursue a career in law?

Two factors influenced my career path. I had studied social sciences in High School and, among the career options open to me, law was the most appealing. I also had the urge to pursue a career path that would involve me in the protection of the rights and welfare of the vulnerable in the society. I saw law as a career option that would enable me to pursue this cause.

How are female judges perceived in your country?

I believe women judges are perceived as equal to male judges. Kenyans have embraced the idea that women are equally capable and deserving of appointment to the bench.

Have you faced any challenges and how have your overcome these?

The challenge that I face serving as the Chief Justice is the resource constraints that limit the interventions and programmes that I would like to implement to deepen access to justice and enhance the efficiency of the justice system.

We are engaging in robust cooperative dialogue with the other arms of government to impress upon the need to enhance budgetary allocation to the Judiciary. In addition, we are also engaging with development partners to support some of programmes.

Have there been any women who have inspired you throughout your life and career?

My mother has been the inspiration and the wind beneath my wings. Her determination and sacrifices to see us, her children, acquire education and pursue careers continues to motivate me in my career.

In addition, the example and mentorship by the first women to be appointed to the bench in Kenya has been a source of motivation for Kenyan women judges. Justice Effie Owuor was appointed as the first woman judge of the High Court in 1982. She later became the first woman judge of the Court of Appeal in 1998, the then apex court in the country. She was joined by Justice Joyce Aluoch who was appointed as a High Court Judge in 1993 and subsequently as a Judge of Appeal in 2007.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in leadership roles?

It is important to have women in leadership positions as it affirms the equal worth and value of women in the society. We are coming from a past where women’s ability and capability was not recognised. This denied women an opportunity to pursue their dreams and achieve their potential. Having an increasing number of women ascend to leadership position reverses this legacy of discrimination and exclusion of women from decision-making spaces.

Why do you think celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) is important?

It gives women a chance to celebrate the strides and advances that has been made towards establishing inclusive societies. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the past, where we are coming from. Keeping the past in view helps us to remember the sacrifices and struggles that have been made in the quest for an egalitarian society where women’s equal worth is accepted and embraced.

What do you think of this year’s theme for IWD #EmbraceEquity?

It is an apt and fitting theme. For calling on all of us to imagine and strive for a world where diversity is valued and celebrated, we will establish a society where the human dignity and worth of everyone is affirmed. It urges us to strive for an egalitarian world where everyone is allowed an opportunity to pursue their potential and dreams on their own terms without the need to conform to norms or values of dominant groups in the society.

Hon. Justice Martha Koome, EGH
Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya