Back when I was at Kenya Model United Nations I had the amazing chance of meeting women who hold up other women. My confidence in leadership was made possible by a number of them including Elizabeth Njambi CEO and Founder of Wakilisha that you’ll know more about from this interview.
1. What inspired the establishment of Wakilisha?
Two things, actually.
- In my last year of law school at the University of Nairobi, I attended my first legal aid exercise as a member of the Students’ Association for Legal Aid and Research (SALAR). I had always been scared of attending legal aid exercises because I couldn’t live with myself if I made a mistake; and I couldn’t get past the possibility of making a mistake. You get that right? (I absolutely get it)
Anyway, I got the chance to attend a “simple” legal aid exercise at the Kamiti Youth Correctional and Training Centre (YCTC) for data collection. YCTC hosts boys in conflict with the law. With each boy I talked to, I noticed a pattern: poverty and in a good number of the cases, broken or non-existent family structures. Any of these children could have been me, my friends, my cousins etc., except we had a different upbringing.
2. The HiiL Innovative Justice Challenge. Weeks after my visit to YCTC, I was still thinking of my interaction with the boys. I wanted to do something, but what? …
I was in class when I received an email; the “forward to group” email I’d normally ignore, except this one “called me”. HiiL was inviting innovators to submit applications for funding. They were targeting innovations aimed at promoting access to justice. Immediately I read that email I started doodling on my notebook. I don’t know what we learned that day in class, but it’s one of the greatest days of my life: when ‘my baby’ was born. I wish I could remember the exact date.
2. Is there a story behind your baby’s name?
Oh yes! Like with any baby, choosing a name was not easy! By the time I was naming the baby, I had convinced two people to join my team. (I won’t go into that story, but the joy of sharing your vision with someone and having them not only believe in it, but also agree to join you: It’s amazing!).
We named the baby Wakili.sha because it represents all we’re about. Get it? Wakili is the Kiswahili word for Lawyer and Wakilisha means represent.
The main goal is to promote access to justice for children in conflict with the law through free legal representation. I shared it with the team and they loved it immediately.
3. Have you always known that you will pursue the law?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve always been the noisy one who won’t go down without a fight. In addition, my grandfather, the closest person I had to a father figure, said I’d be one. He’s watching over me now and I sure hope he’s feeling proud!
4. What mandate or focus areas do you have as a non-profit?
Our focus is on children in conflict with the law. These are children who have been accused of committing offences. We are aimed at promoting their access to justice through: –
- Free legal representation;
- Rehabilitative justice – Mentorship & Talent Development; and
- Public awareness and advocacy.
5. Who makes up the team at Wakilisha?
It’s a large team! We are a mix of lawyers, advocates-in-training, economist(s), accountant(s) and public health practitioners. We have six departments i.e.
- IT and
- Finance & Partnerships.
6. Why delve in into social justice and what impact do you wish to make?
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, Desmond Tutu’s famous quote has been doing rounds on social media. I think it best explains why we must all do something about the world we live in. He said,
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
I want to leave this earth knowing I did my part in making it a better place.
7. What challenges have you encountered setting up?
The biggest challenge, as you’ll hear from most legal aid organizations is getting advocates to offer pro bono services. However, we’ve found a way to ensure it takes as little of their time as possible and I’m proud of us for that. Secondly, having started this as a student, finances have been quite the hurdle. I’m grateful for all those who’ve supported us so far…and those planning to!
I must say, I have received a lot of support and mentorship, which has helped me navigate challenges. I have learned a lot in past years and extremely grateful to those who’ve held my hand.
8. Do you believe it is possible to access justice in Kenya today despite your social status?
Kenya is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world meaning your social status will often determine what services you have access to. However, there are players in the justice system who believe in justice and those are the ones I choose to believe in. I choose to remain hopeful that through all our concerted efforts, a time will come when justice is available to all!
9. 50 years into independence, do you think the average Kenyan has been decolonized?
Not at all! To be decolonized is to exercise free will. Free will, like consent, can only be truly exercised by a fully informed individual. I am only just starting to learn the historical injustices that have impacted our lives. If “history” as we know it is majorly falsehood and a sad case of broken-telephone, then the average Kenyan has not been decolonized – and will not be unless s/he truly understands our history and how it continues to affect our daily lives.
10. What role do young lawyers and advocates have in building the Kenya we want to see?
We are such a creative generation. We have so much to offer, yet most of us choose not to.
Young lawyers and advocates should offer some of their time to legal aid services. It need not be in criminal justice. Find your passion and offer what you can to make this country (and world) a better place for yourself and others to live in!
PS: If you’re a young lawyer/advocate, passionate about children’s rights and willing to offer your services in whatever capacity, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11. Is legal aid a forgotten avenue for justice in Kenya, if yes, how can we do better?
No, it’s not. Legal aid is underserved but not forgotten. We have several organizations offering legal aid in various issues and forms. From my experience, many lawyers and advocates, especially those newly in practice, are passionate about justice but don’t know where to plug in.
I’ll repeat for those at the back. If you’re a young lawyer/advocate, passionate about children’s rights, email us at email@example.com. Let’s make a difference in a child’s life.
12. There is an ongoing conversation on the effect of online classes to children’s cognitive development. Do you think this in any way inhibits their right to health?
I’m not an expert on this, but there’s no denying that the world is going digital. Curriculums must factor this in. There’s also no denying that excessive use of technological devices comes with negative effects on a child’s mental, social and physical health.
However, given the positive impacts e-learning has on cognitive development, I think parents and teachers simply have to make sure that the use of technology is controlled. I’ll leave it to the experts to determine just how much is enough.
13. Who would be an ideal partner to help you achieve your goals? What more can go into bettering this discussion?
Anyone passionate about a better world and children rights.
Bettering the discussion – We need more people to join the discussion. I have personally witnessed how little people know about children in conflict with the law. That’s why we are passionate about raising awareness. Raising awareness gets people talking and it challenges those who can do something, into action. So, what can you reading this do?
- Individuals – Follow us on our social media; read the resources available on our website; donate regularly to support our work; attend our webinars & events (Corona permitting!); listen to and support our podcast; tell your friends and family to support us as well.
- Corporates – Partner with us on various projects. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
14. Why a child-friendly justice system?
Children are our future! We say this passively, but we must truly understand that failing to protect our children is destroying whatever future there is.
15. During the COVID-19 pandemic there has been an increase in the number of pregnancies amongst minors where does the fault in the system that should protect these minors lie?
You and I are the failure in the system. Just look at how the conversations have swayed since the news broke. Look at “Romeo and Juliet” cases where despite both minors being of the similar age and both “consenting” to engage in sex, only the boy gets convicted.
We shy away from discussing sex and sexual abuse. That’s the reason why a girl will fail to report sexual abuse. How could she when all she knows is that it’s taboo? How can a boy speak up after being sodomized? We’ll be quick to question and ridicule; but offer no solutions. We have all failed as parents, teachers and actors in the justice system.
16. What does the ideal Kenyan legal system look like for you in 2030?
It’s accessible by all.