Nairobi, Human rights, RWI

Finding Accountability Through Human Rights


Yvonne Oyieke joined RWI as a Programme Officer in May this year at the Nairobi office. We sat down with her to discover more about this new member of the RWI team.

Travel and academics have been ongoing passions for Oyieke, who grew up in Nairobi and moved to Namibia at the age of 13. After high school she moved to South Africa, but has since returned home to Nairobi.

Before coming to RWI, she worked at Pretoria University in the gender department and the Institute for International and Comparative Law.  After returning to Nairobi she also taught philosophy, gender and law at the university’s law school.

Continuing her passion for philosophy, Oyieke is currently completing her doctorate in jurisprudence (legal philosophy), at Pretoria University.

I like that it’s abstract. It’s like a puzzle, even though you never quite figure it out. I like complicated things. And what is more complex than a puzzle that keeps giving you new pieces?

However, it was also this abstractness that drove her move into human rights.

I fell into the trap that some philosophers do, a kind of frustration that what you actually do has no tangible purpose. In my mind, human rights seemed like a theory that had transcended that void. Human rights appeals to me because its ultimate goal is to make things better.

Initially, Oyieke said she had a slightly naive belief that human rights could achieve anything. Though she now recognises it can’t do everything, she does believe human rights play an important role in ensuring accountability.

Even though it may not impact the individual directly, human rights can work well as a system of accountability. States are usually responsive to criticisms, and even though it may take some time, they will actively respond.

Since entering the human rights field here at RWI, Oyieke has continued working in academics, though in a slightly different capacity, co-operating with the Center for Human Rights at Addis Ababa University.

The cooperation is part of a three-year program focusing on collaboratively designing activities and trainings in relation to teaching and research in human rights. Currently in its first year, Oyieke’s role consists mostly of coordination and discussions to find the best ways to utilise the expertise of both the Addis Ababa staff and those at the RWI.

She says one of the biggest challenges is trying to get program work into an academic setting.

I think the difficulty is coming into an academic context with non-academic work and trying to push that agenda. There’s more resistance than if I was still teaching. Understandably so, as an academic institution exists to teach and research; so if you’re coming in with something and there are exams coming up and marks need to come out, your training is not a priority.

Despite the challenges, she thoroughly enjoys her work and the diverse range of people she meets, especially as she often gets to travel to Ethiopia, a country she has always been curious about.

Ethiopia has such a rich cultural and social history. A lot of history books made reference to Ethiopia in different ways and even the bible references it.  But, for a long time, because of the nature of the government in place, it was very closed off and so there wasn’t much information about it. It had an air of mystery – and it still does, even though I’ve been there a few times now.

Oyieke was also able to travel to the recent gender conference in Mexico City with a participant from the Addis Ababa Center for Human Rights. It was an opportunity to get back to some of her core interests such as feminist theories and women’s rights.

It is nice to have opportunities to tap into my area of knowledge. I can sit, listen and have a familiar conversation and I don’t even have to write a paper on it!