Rebecca Lolosoli grew up as part of the Samburu tribe in Kenya. Gender relations are complicated in this traditionally patriarchal society, which sees the men as warriors and protectors of women.
Gender-based discrimination and violence in the area continue to place women in the status of second-class. Samburu culture has no age-regulation in marriage, which sees girls as young as 11 being sold for a dowry (of between 2-5 cows), to men as old at 70. Female Genital Mutilation is rife, and girls who refuse are outcasted and not allowed to marry. There are many harmful cultural practices that girls and women are subjected to in this male dominated society.
Rebecca was known in her community as an advocate for women’s rights. She was a business owner and was not shy about speaking out about the issues of women in her society, including calling attention to many unpunished cases of the rape. For voicing these issues, Rebecca was brutally beaten by a group of men as a way to silence her. Her own husband continued the cycle of shame and did not protest against her perpetrators.
Whilst in the hospital for her attack, Rebecca came up with the idea of creating a women only refuge community. When recovered, she left her husband and walked away from her village with a dozen other rape survivors seeking an alternative to the oppressed and violent communities they were born into.
In 1990, Umoja, a women-only society, was founded on a patch of forgotten land. Umoja, which translates to “unity” in Swahili, is a safe haven for girls and women fleeing violence, abuse, female genital mutilation, beading and forced early marriage. No adult man is allowed to live in the village.
Rebecca and the ladies of Umoja face constant threats from men in surrounding villages, however, this does not deter these women from their mission. The women take shifts to guard their community and so far have succeeded to protect themselves.
To conserve Umoja, the ladies sell stunning beaded jewelry and crafts to local visitor and tourists. They also host guests to help spread awareness about their community, and the reason for its existence – which they charge an entry fee for. Local men, again uncomfortable about their new status as non-required by Umoja, deter buses of tourists from the village, to try to stop the women from earning their own money.
“They see us laughing, and they don’t want us to laugh. They say we are too proud because we have money because we always walk proudly on the road, but I say, what is wrong with that?” said Mrs Lolosoli.
Umoja now includes a primary school in which boys and girls from surrounding areas are welcome to attend. The curriculum aims to end the cycle of gender-based violence through education. They also offer training to girls in surrounding Samburu villages to help them stand up against FGM, beading or forced marriage practices, all of which are illegal but remain socially sanctioned in Samburu villages.
The idea that women in this village are empowered, and self-sustained, is a concept too threatening to the traditionally patriarchal culture of the Samburu tribe. Men have always made the decisions, whilst women are very rarely allowed to express their opinions. Now in Umoja, the women have a “Tree of Speech” where they gather to collaborate on the decision making for their village.
Umoja is a great example of how citizens can take gender-based discrimination in their own hands. In the context of the situation, I completely support their courage and bravery and find their actions both inspiring and practical. These women needed a space of support against the many social issues they faced. A space of inclusion, acceptance, and equality. Unfortunately, no such space could exist in their society – so they created a new one.
However, is the only way to end the violent power of patriarchy worldwide to create separatist societies that exclude men? I hope this is not the case. I hope that both in Kenya and other areas of the world, such as Australia where gender-based violence sees at least one women killed in an act of domestic violence per week, can eventually extinguish gender-based violence through a deeply rooted understanding of the true nature of gender constructs, and an equal distribution of power.
Disturbingly many comments I’ve come across in researching this article tend to argue that gender equality is basically there (note my blood starts to boil!), and that rape and violence towards women is just inherent in human nature. The truth, (which thankfully some people care about) is that this is NOT the case. Violence against women, in Kenya, Australia or anywhere in the world is deeply and entirely cultural.
Here is a powerful video by Broadly and the brilliant Michelle De Swarte. It provides great insight into Umoja, the spin-off effect is has had for other women to create similar women-led communities, and asks the men of Kenya their opinion on the situation. Broadly is a channel you should definitely subscribe to!