When Mwaniki was born, her mother forgot all about it: “She felt women did not serve in God’s house,” explained Mwaniki, who is now director for Gender and Women at the All Africa Conference of Churches, and an ordained pastor in the Anglican Church of Kenya.
The young Lydia went on to grow up in the church. At an overnight prayer meeting, after she had completed secondary school, she felt a strong call to serve God in a deeper way. “I felt I wasn’t doing enough,” she said. “I asked people to pray for me.”
The vicar at her own church asked if she’d like to go to a theological college. “I needed to know how to serve God further, and I needed education for that,” she said. “In those days, women were not being ordained.”
Nonetheless, she attended theological college to receive training for ministry. “All of us, both women and men, were pursuing a Certificate in Theology,” she said. “I was training to be a better Sunday School teacher, to know the Bible better, to know how to preach.”
When she earned a certificate in theology in 1989, she also married and began having children. In 1992, when she attended St Paul’s United Theological College (now St Paul’s University), she was a young mother.
“At one point, I was six months pregnant, and I had to put on a dress so the bishop would not know because I knew I would be stopped,” she said. “Some people wondered: ‘Why can’t you quit studying and give birth, and go back to school?’ I said, my pregnancy is not in my brain—it’s in my womb. Then I passed them in class.”
She added: “The challenges I faced as a young mother, a wife, an upcoming theologian—it wasn’t easy at all.”
As a young church leader, sometimes senior pastors would assign her to go prepare food or make tea rather than attend a meeting. She was also refused a travel allowance. “The priest in charge, because he didn’t like the ministry of women, said he hated working with deaconesses because they were lazy,” she said. “Meanwhile, I was walking five-ten kilometers to do pastoral visits.”
Her doctoral studies centered on why women were not taking leadership positions in the church. “The Bible has created gender disparities, and that really disturbed me,” said Mwaniki. “The debate kept coming up that women can’t be priests because they don’t represent the male God,” she said. “But Genesis talks about the image of God—that male and female are made in the image of God.”
Her drive for gender justice is the foundation for her leadership with the All Africa Conference of Churches, where advocacy related to gender, women, and youth is one of the programmatic pillars.
Mwaniki is especially concerned about the plight of widows in Africa. “When a husband dies, the widow ceases to be a human but becomes an object,” Mwaniki said. “The All Africa Conference of Churches has recognized that we need to increase awareness about the plight of widows.”
Through a “Justice for Widows” campaign, the All Africa Conference of Churches makes available to churches small grants as well as a resource “tool kit” to help create awareness and support widows.
Mwaniki has also been instrumental in creating a program on “Male Champions for Gender Justice” through which men in six pilot African countries speak out about preventing gender-based violence.
“In many communities, men are the heads in our churches and our societies,” she said. “Our voices are not heard—but the man is heard. Women can be easily silenced so we have increased male advocacy for gender justice.”
Through theology, through programmes, and simply through telling the story of her own life, Mwaniki believes and hopes for a world in which all people live in dignity and a sense of equal worth before God.
“We really must be determined to bring transformation just to let the world know and the culture know that we, as women, are full human beings created in the image of God,” she said. “Our leadership qualities are human qualities—they are not male or female.”