CHAMPION

Betty Sharon: Iron lady feted for advocating girls', women's rights

She founded Coast Women in Development, which focused on violence against women and girls, but never expected any recognition

In Summary

• She has staged protests, touched lives and campaigned for law amendments

• Her efforts were feted at the World Women Leadership Congress in Mumbai, India 

Betty Sharon (C) receives her award at the World Leadership Congress in Mumbai, India, on February 7
Betty Sharon (C) receives her award at the World Leadership Congress in Mumbai, India, on February 7
Image: MALEMBA MKONGO

As she stood to receive a world recognition award in India, whatever ran through her mind possibly was how someone had finally recognised her work and how far she had come to achieve it.

Betty Sharon is not new to the limelight. She has staged walkout protests, touched lives and spearheaded campaigns that led to the amendment of laws.

In women's and girl's spheres, Betty is a heroine who has given her all in championing for their rights and fighting against gender-based violence.

 

On February 17, her endeavours earned her recognition at the 7th edition of World Women Leadership Congress in Mumbai, India. She is among few African women who have been awarded by the organisation founded by RL Bhatia.

She was awarded under a special category that seeks to recognise exemplary women leaders who have transformed the world in the smaller space they live in.

The organisation described Sharon as a respected woman in the industry. “I agree with those who recommended your name for the award that your iconic status deserves recognition,” RL Bhatia said.

But how did an international organisation recognise her efforts, which had not been recognised locally?

Sharon had been recommended by unknown people and underwent scrutiny by a five-bench judge bench, who saw it fit to award her.

 

She said her passion for fellow women and young girls made her work without expectations of recognition from anyone.

“I thank God that someone recognised my work. Even though I have always worked without expecting any recognition, it feels good when someone notices your good work,” she said.

“This is a motivation that I continue championing for women's and girl's rights.

Adding, "You do not have to know anyone to reach the sky. That is the spirit young women should have to conquer this world."

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Born in a tiny village in Siaya county, Sharon never thought she would touch lives through the work of her hands.

After college, she landed in Mombasa in search of internship and maybe seize a job opportunity if it arose.

Being a trained pharmaceutical technician, Sharon landed a job at Nyali nursing home and later moved to Pandya Hospital, before moving on to a private chemist.

A few years later, a chemist she was working with shut down. She ventured into the business, opening her own chemist in Mshomoroni.

She later closed it after channelling its profits to running a human rights organisation she had co-founded.

In 2003, while still serving in the health sector, Sharon was among hundreds of women invited for an HIV conference in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health.

In a new city, most of the women she had travelled with did not have a place to spend the night in.

She informed the organisers about the situation and later mobilised for accommodation for the women.

Her actions did not go unrecognised by the women, opening more doors and chapters in her life.

After the conference and going back to Mombasa, fellow women proposed she join the Mombasa District Business Association and later suggested she vie for secretary.

“I took up the challenge and vied for the position, where I contested alongside some big names in the business at that time and floored them,” she said.

However, her win was opposed by some members, who then plotted a plan to eject her from the leadership.

Following the tensions at the association, she later quit and, alongside other like-minded women, came up with Coast Women in Development, which focused on violence against women and girls.

Due to lack of funds to run the office, she had to inject money from her pocket to operate the new organisation.

This made her shut down her chemist because it ran bankrupt after she used its profits in the organisation instead of investing in the business.

“With the chemist closed, I did not have any other place to get funds. However, (Ganze) MP Teddy Mwambire taught me how to seek funds from well-wishers and donors,” Sharon said.

With well-wishers willing to join her course, the organisation focused on fighting gender-based violence.

This came at a time when GBV cases were rampant in the region, especially in Mombasa county.

Sharon said fighting GBV in a region that is cultured not to speak about its predicament was a challenge to the organisation as women shied off from reporting or speaking about their predicaments.

RIGHTS ACHIEVEMENTS

Aside from standing up for women, Sharon has been at the forefront in championing for amendments of laws that had gaps, giving leeway to offenders.

In 2009, Betty was among stakeholders who pushed for the government to come up with laws forcing hotels not to allow underage girls to enter the hotels with tourists.

The proposals that were later developed to laws were meant to protect underage girls and boys from sexual exploitation by sex predators posing as tourists.

The laws demanded that tourists should produce proper identification of the relation between the tourist and the child before they were allowed into any hotel.

Sharon also initiated a programme to reform sexual offenders confined at Shimo la Tewa prisons.

The human rights defender was also part of Pwani GBV Network, which led to the training of police on GBV, and went ahead to push for setting up gender desks at police stations.

She also shone the spotlight on minors getting married to each other, which led to a discussion of whether those actions amounted to a criminal offence.

Sharon currently runs a leadership project for 20 women, which is being funded by Global Women.

The project is aimed at mentoring young women on leadership and empowering them with skills to stand for themselves.

“The project is aimed at giving women a voice and powers to sit on the decision table and raise their own voice,” she said.

Sharon, however, said she has faced challenges that have sometimes hindered her work.

She said GBV cases are difficult to deal with, as there is low co-operation between stakeholders in ensuring justice for victims.

But as the world celebrates her achievements, Sharon maintains her fire to change the world in her small way will continue burning.

“I want the generation to remember me as someone who touched their lives and gave them hope. That is the legacy I want to build,” she said.

Edited by T Jalio