Men Are Banned From This Kenyan Village To Protect Women From Sexual Violence

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Now this is a story worth telling! There is a village in Northern Kenya called Umoja, located in the grasslands and Samburu, which is unlike any other village in the area, and possibly in the entire country. This village doesn’t allow any men to live there. Yep, it is a female-only village, and it was created this way for a certain reason.

Umoja was founded in 1990 by 15 women who were all raped by British soldiers, reports Julie Bindel at the Guardian, who traveled to Kenya to see how these women live and share some of their stories. Since 1990 the village has taken in women who are victims of or who are escaping rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

The matriarch of the village and founder is Rebecca Lolosoli who was subjected to beatings after daring to speak up about women’s rights in her village. Her people from Samburu are very traditional and patriarchal in nature. While she was recovering in hospital, she came up with the idea of a village free of men where women could raise their children and not live in fear of discrimination and sexual violence.

There are 47 women and 200 children who currently live in Umoja, where women learn a trade or a skill, are given uninhibited access to education and can have food, shelter and clothing without worry of what it will cost them. If you are thinking this story sounds familiar, perhaps you recently saw the images of a female-run town in north-east India, where a Germany photographer captured vivid images of the girls who run the village. The matrilineal village is a place where young girls grow up free from the gender constraints common in other areas of the country, and this is very rare. But as evidenced by the “Madchenland” photography series, and now this village in Kenya, it is happening more.

Along with having an upbringing many women in the Western world are privileged to enjoy, these women are taught why it is important to marry later, are educated on healthcare and are expected to be involved in village decisions, giving them vital leadership skills.

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“I have learned to do things here that women are normally forbidden to do. I am allowed to make my own money, and when a tourist buys some of my beads I am so proud,” said Nagusi, a middle-aged woman with five children.

“Outside, women are being ruled by men so they can’t get any change. The women in Umoja have freedom,” said Seita Lengima, an elderly woman.

The Guardian article points out that while there are no men allowed to live in the village, they have men help them tend their animals, and some of the women are married to men who live elsewhere, hence the presence of so many children.

The village’s founder Rebecca has received many death threats for what she has created, and there are people in neighboring towns and villages to view Umoja with some suspicion. Given that some of the women still have husbands, yet live in an isolated village, it is seen as a very different place from the other traditional areas.

One of the reasons it has become a lifesaver for rape victims is the stigma surrounding rape in Islamic communities there.

“Once a woman is raped, they are not clean any more in Islam and Qur’an culture. It is not fair, because it happens by accident,” said Sammy Kania, a Umoja resident.

Women who are raped are considered unclean and are often not able to marry.

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In 2003 it seemed as if the women in the village who were raped by the soldiers might get justice, when a British law practice who has an outpost set up in a near-by village to work with locals who had been injured by bombs left by the British Army.

Women from Umoja shared stories of gang-rape and sexual violence spanning 30 years, and one of the firm’s partners gathered evidence to report to the Royal Military Police. The RMP decided all the documents were forged, and when the law firm asked for all the documentation to be returned, it mysteriously “went missing”. It has still never been found, and read like an institutional cover up of an awful crime.

“We wanted to argue for compensation for the women and girls who had suffered at the hands of the soldiers. Their lives were, quite literally, ruined,” said Martin Day, a partner at Leigh Day law firm.

The women in Umoja may not be receiving the compensation they so rightly deserve any time soon, but they are at least living in an area where they can thrive and have a future they decide upon.

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It is not just Umoja where women are learning to use their voice as a source of power, elsewhere in Africa there are women and villages changing traditions that no longer serve societies that seek gender equality.

Malawi is a country where some remarkable changes are taking place within families and communities. Activist Melinda Gates who does extensive work with women in developing countries around the world with the Gates Foundation, recently shared an insightful essay on Marie Claire which claims feminism is making great strides, about some innovative programs that are allowing existing gender paradigms to be shifted.

“The initiative, called Pathways and run by our foundation’s partner organization CARE, challenges locals to reconsider their points of view—in one exercise, mealtime roles are reversed and men have to face how they’d feel if they only ever got to eat leftovers. Their wives told me that, often, that exercise alone was enough for their husbands to start seeing things differently,” she writes.

“In another exercise, men and women take a new look at their household finances by drawing a ‘cash flow tree’ on butcher paper, showing income and expenditures. The dialogue shows men how many aspects of managing the household women are responsible for, which helps spark a conversation between husbands and wives about the importance of including her in financial decisions.”

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In many patriarchal communities, women do not have any say in a family’s financial decisions, they may not always have access to education or proper healthcare, and it can be seen as taboo to challenge a man about anything.

“In Malawi and around the world, when women and girls have the opportunity to reach their full promise, they use it to do incredible things. So it’s important that all of us—no matter where we live—use our voices to start dialogues about the inequalities we see in our own lives,” concludes Melinda about what she is observing.

She made a very interesting point at the beginning that blaming a man isn’t always helpful, because he is just carrying on a tradition that has been the norm for so long. They often don’t realize they are carrying on harmful practices and attitudes that until pointed out, can’t be expected to change overnight.

In our opinion, the best thing about a village like Umoja is not necessarily that they are away from men, but they have built a strong community where women and girls are allowed to thrive. Getting educated, getting healthcare, having support, the ability to earn an income and make their own financial decisions. These are fundamental rights that set women on the path to gender equality.

To see more images of Umoja taken by photographer Georgina Goodwin for the Observer, click here.

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