Fidelis Karanja – Founder of Young African Women Initiatives (YAWI)

This month we are celebrating International Women’s Day and we are focusing in particular on Fidelis Karanja, who has founded a women-led human rights organisation. The organisation provides frontline services for women, children and girls facing gender-based violence.

Tell us about yourself, what you studied and when you graduated.

I was born and live in Kenya and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Development Studies from Mt. Kenya University. I was then awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in the University of York in the United Kingdom and did that through the distance learning program. In July 2018, I went to York University to graduate with a Master’s degree in Public Administration International Development.

I grew up where domestic violence was the order of the day, and all through my growing up desired to collect this vice, ensure women and girls are free from all forms of violence regardless of their race, age, ethnicity and social class.

I’m the type of person that feels compelled to try to solve any problem, even if it’s only a dangling doorknob. I grew up where domestic violence was the order of the day, and all through my growing up desired to collect this vice, ensure women and girls are free from all forms of violence regardless of their race, age, ethnicity and social class. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, negatively affecting women’s general well-being and preventing women from fully participating in society. For this reason, I founded YOUNG AFRICAN WOMEN INITIATIVES(YAWI), a women-led human rights organisation based in Kenya. The purpose of the organisation is to provide frontline services to meet the needs of women, children and girls facing multiple disadvantages across more strands of gender-based violence.

Before this, I served with a local Microfinance for 8 years, 2 years’ parliamentary service commission senators office in Nakuru county. I also served with a local NGO in different capacities. I joined the organisation as a volunteer after the 2007 post-election violence to support IDPs programs and other victims of violence. I was later promoted as a microfinance trainer to support country offices to build the capacity of staff and support women’s economic empowerment programs. In 2014, I became Director of Community Transformation and Resources mobilisation.

As a distance learner, what made you choose The University of York?

My passion for women and girls’ empowerment made me look for a university that would gain knowledge in public policy and development and when I was doing research, I found the University of York. The University of York was the only institution that offered me what I was looking for. The credibility of the institution was no doubt, it is one of the best and top-ranking universities in the United Kingdom and had been selected by the commonwealth to receive scholarships. In fact, my scholarship application was so easy because I applied through the University of York and believe this is one of the reasons I got a scholarship. Lastly, I had always desired to travel to the UK and I believed that by taking the course and reaching graduation level I would get an opportunity to visit this beautiful institution as well as the country.

What have you learnt about yourself through your study and work?

One thing I learned about myself is that I have the capacity to remain disciplined and focused without close supervision. I did not have anyone tell me when to do my assignment but one thing I was sure it must be done and submitted on time. Also, I realised that one has a purpose to achieve an objective in life.

Fidelis in green Tshirt during a visit to YAWI tailoring centre

What do you currently do?

Currently, I lead YAWI as the C.E.O. Since YAWI is still a young organisation with a lean staff, I take the lead on the day to day running of the organisation leading/supporting the team in resource mobilisation, partnership/networking, fundraising as well as the development of programs based on community needs along the line of gender-based violence awareness-raising, prevention and response. Also, my experience has been in the areas of project writing, project management and implementation, organisation policy development, partnership and networking. I am also a policy influencer in the public space. Recently I have been involved in a partnership in the review and validation of Nakuru county gender development policy.

What did the early stages of your career look like and how did it develop?

From a humble background, my father educated me up to secondary school. I did not manage to join a university immediately. I did casual jobs as well as tried small businesses which did not work. However, I later got a clerical job in the health institution where I worked and saved some money to take an evening computer course. I did several computer packages and got certificates. Later I got a tutor job but the job did not last for long and I found another one at a printing press where I was a print designer, but due to harassment at work, I left and joined microfinance institutions where I worked for 7 years until 2007 when my country went through politically instigated violence which made me relocate to work as a volunteer in an NGO at the capital city. I later got a two-year contract and managed to pay for a degree course in development studies. Later I applied for a Masters in Public Administration and International Development at the University of York through a commonwealth scholarship. I worked for the NGO until 2018 when I revived my organization and started looking for partners and donors to support my dream of ending violence against women and girls.

Tell us about a normal day in your life and job?

I start my day early at 5 am and I’m a religious woman and so my daily devotion is for at least one hour. I like keeping fit so I usually use my exercise machine in the morning and after I have breakfast and head to work. At my workplace, I catch up with my team of 4 staff for updates and any new development on programs.

My main and daily work is seeking new partners/donors through proposal development, reaching out to people who could be interested in our work as well as amplifying YAWI work through social media platforms Twitter and Facebook.

I am passionate about women being free and enjoying their rights. It fills my heart with joy when women and girls get to understand their rights and exercise their rights without the fear of intimidation.

What do you love about your current role?

I am passionate about women being free and enjoying their rights. It fills my heart with joy when women and girls get to understand their rights and exercise their rights without the fear of intimidation. Also when women and girls are able to protect and claim their rights and those of other voiceless people such as children and other vulnerable women. Further when women are able to leave abusive relationships as well as become economically empowered to meet their daily needs rather than depending on their abuser for their needs. It gives me joy to see the whole transformation of a woman’s life.

Skill training is given to survivors of gender-based violence.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?

One must be driven by a passion for bringing change to people who may not understand the systems. Also being resilient and focused brings joy when there is a success.

Tell us a bit more about the work you do helping women.

  • Economic and Livelihood program: Dubbed “Promoting Opportunities For Women Empowerment (POWER)” The purpose of this program is to equip women in the informal settlement in Nakuru town who are mainly survivors of gender based violence (domestic violence). They are equipped with technical skills in Reusable biodegradable & eco-friendly bags making, apron and reusable baby diapers.
  • Gender based violence and human rights program
  • Elewa haki (Know Your Right): The main objective of the ELEWA HAKI project is to create awareness on gender based violence and provide social platforms using technology and media to end Gender Based Violence, using a Human Right Approach (HRA) model. Our HRA focuses on both universal and Kenyan constitution economic and social rights guaranteed under article 43 of the Kenyan Constitution.
  • Sexual and reproductive health and teenage pregnancy support.
  • Through a program dubbed Support Expecting and parenting teenagers in YOUR COMMUNITY, YAWI offers sexual and health education to school goings teenage girls, offer psychosocial support to victims of teenage pregnancy. In addition to sending them back to school, sort for justice for rape cases, child support among other. Also trains and provides teenage mothers to use reusable dippers instead of single use diapers to promote a clean environment.
 Women and girls survivors of GBV are taught tailoring skills and make items for local and global sales.

Tell us more about the environmental conservation work you do.

A changing climate affects everyone, but it’s the world’s poorest and those in vulnerable situations, especially women and girls, who bear the brunt of environmental, economic and social shocks. YAWI sensitises women on environmentally friendly initiatives such as waste management, public awareness, energy conservation etc. Through a clean energy initiative dubbed ‘LIGHT IS BASIC’, we distribute solar lanterns and biodigesters when funding is available. However, on a normal basis, women are engaged in tree planting activities.

YAWI environment project

Can other people get involved/donate/support/find out more?

YAWI relies 100% on donor funding to carry on its programs. I believe this is a good opportunity for philanthropists to come on board and support our work. Also, we offer students who would like to have an African experience, especially on issues of gender-based violence to come for a six month to a 2-year internship or volunteer work. YAWI accepts donations both in kind and in cash. Also volunteer services both online and offline such as fundraising, grant search and proposal development among others

You mentioned that you have helped form and influence policy in your country. Can you tell us more about this, how you went about it and what made you want to start this movement for change?

I am also a policy influencer in the public space. Through our advocacy work, we agitated for a gender county policy that will look into the challenges that women and girls face and how these challenges can be addressed. I was involved with the multi-stakeholder policy development in the review and validation of Nakuru county gender development policy which is currently a county assembly awaiting to be discussed.

My dream is to have a movement that can make this a reality not only in my country but globally.

What hopes do you have for the future?

My hope for the future is to have policies that address all forms of gender-based violence developed and implemented leading to development projects and finally having a gender-equal society. My dream is to have a movement that can make this a reality not only in my country but globally.

You can find out more about YAWI and how to get involved here:

Twitter: @YawiKenya
Facebook page:

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  1. Hello. I’m an alumnus of York – I did an MA there before moving sideways (I always think of it as a sideways move) to do my DPhil at Oxford, wherever that is. I now live in Kenya, so am fascinated by Fidelis’s work in Kenya and the issues she champions so well. Great congratulations – I look forward to clicking through your website, Fidelis. As your Facebook page demonstrates, with its video of the shocking boda boda incident here of yesterday, your work is needed here, as it is – sadly – everywhere.

    1. Congratulations Fidelis, also adding my voice from Kenya as a York Alumni…Keep up the great work!

      1. Thank you for getting in touch! We will pass your comments on to Fidelis.

    2. Hello Stephen, thank you for getting in touch. It was a great pleasure to speak to Fidelis and hear about her work which is incredible and we are just pleased to be able to share her work. I will pass on your comments to her as I know she will be pleased to have your support. Thanks for getting in touch!

    3. I’ve admitted you for so long. Sharing your experiences, thoughts, and goals only makes me admire you more. Thank you for such thoughtful writing.

  2. Good job for actively contributing to the change you want to see. I wonder how men are involved YAWI and in the broader gender equity discussion?

    1. Hello, thanks for getting in touch. We are pleased you enjoyed the article. You can always reach out to YAWI for more information via their contact details which are at the end of the article. Thank you.

  3. Excellent Fidelis! What an impact!!! You are transforming lives and societies by putting into practice what you learnt! Congratulations, and continue serving. We need many more Fidelis across the globe!

  4. Kudos to this phenomenal alumnus of York. Your work is sorely needed at this time, I am glad you were brave enough to heed the call. Keep shining the York light in Kenya, happy to have been your classmate at UoY!

  5. Fidelis is an inspiration to women everywhere. Her passion is unmatched. God bless her.

  6. Great photos, and work! Keep up the great work!

  7. This is a great interview of a woman who deserves deep recognition for all she has created and accomplished, and for the important messages she has, inspiring us all to believe in our ability to create positive and necessary change.

  8. Congratulations Fidelis! Your voice is so important – grateful for your incredible work.

  9. Wow warms my heart to see Fidelis honored, she’s an absolute tower of inspiration, hope and possibility for women and girls across the world, not only in Kenya! I have interacted and worked with her severally and her work ethic, focus and discipline is worth emulating. Her relentless efforts in empowering women and girls and her communities are already causing changes and a story 10 to 15 years from now will read differently in a positive manner. We love you Fidelis, keep up the good fight.

  10. Wow! Amazing job done by friend Fidelis. She’s the epitome of inspiration and hope for women across the nation and Beyond. I know Fidelis as relentless and Bold, informed and courageous, a servant and disciplined ( these are very rare qualities) to the course of fighting for women and girls. Reading this article has only reminded me how far she is willing to go for change. Viva Fidelis, the world is a small place for you to conquer.

  11. Fidelis is one of the most inspirational woman that I know! Regardless of the challenges ahead, she continues towards her goals of supporting women affected by violence, and is truly dedicated. Congrats Fidelis on this huge achievement! We’re all so very proud of you and the wonderful work you do, especially with YAWI!

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