The Defenders

Wangari Maathai

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya. Her family members were farmers, and her life on the farm gave her a deep connection to the land. At that time, Kenya was a colony of the British Empire. Native Kenyans could give advice and make their interests known to the colonial government, but British officials held all of the power to make decisions for Kenya and its people. Wangari grew up during the political upheaval and turmoil of Kenya’s decolonization, meaning that the British government was handing power back to the native Kenyans to form their own government.

Wangari wanted to be part of this new government and knew she needed an education to accomplish her goal. Through the Kennedy Airlift, a program designed to provide African students access to Western schools, Wangari was able to attend college in Kansas and Pennsylvania. Afterward, she returned to Kenya and studied at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first African woman in Central Africa to earn a PhD and the first female associate professor at the University of Nairobi.

The life of an academic professor was not enough for Wangari. She wanted to work with the government to protect the rights of women and promote democracy. She decided to serve on the National Council of Women of Kenya, a government group that hears the concerns of Kenyan women and tries to fix them. In that position, Wangari heard stories of rural Kenyan women whose streams were drying up, whose food supply was insecure, and who were running out of wood for fuel and fencing. Wangari came up with the idea to plant trees. Young trees would help the soil hold rainwater, fully grown trees could provide food, and mature trees could be harvested for their wood.

Wangari founded the Green Belt Movement to carry out this plan. Because it was women who had brought this issue to her attention, the Green Belt Movement provided women a small cash incentive to plant trees. During this project, Wangari realized that many of the hardships the Green Belt Movement was trying to fix had emerged because the local farmers had given their land ownership rights to non-local politicians and businessmen, thinking that they would protect the farmers’ interests. Wangari decided she would educate the local farmers and show them how to protect their rights.

Soon, the Green Belt Movement was conducting seminars on civic engagement, encouraging people to know their rights and to fight for independence and government accountability. Wangari focused her attention on women, encouraging them to speak and be active in civic affairs. Ever since, the Green Belt Movement has been a powerful voice in Kenya and the world, fighting for democracy, women’s empowerment, and environmental justice.


Intersectionality is a big word, but a relatively simple concept. It is the idea that the same problems do not affect everyone the same way. For example, the deterioration of farmland in Kenya affected women more than men. Although life was hard for men who could no longer survive off their land, they could move to cities and get jobs in manufacturing and labor. Women had no such option, often because gender discrimination kept them from getting the jobs “meant” for men. Likewise, land issues affected the poor more than the rich. The poor would be stuck on land that could not sustain them and had no value when sold, while the rich often had ways to support themselves other than farming.

Therefore, to understand the true impact of Kenya’s deteriorating farmland, you would have to look at where the effects of the environment intersect with the effects of race and the effects of poverty.

Intersectionality is an important part of defending human rights. Our efforts, like Wangari’s, must take into account the whole person and take special efforts to give a voice to vulnerable groups like women.


  • Identify an issue you care about. Reach out to local or national community leaders working on the issue to learn more about the issue and how it impacts different groups (including any similarities and dissimilarities between the effects) and to recommended actions.
  • Find out who represents you in government here and call them about the issue!
  • Consider creating a Countable account and follow an issue that you don’t know much about.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.