Umoja: The Women-Only Village
Trigger warning: This article will cover the topic of rape. Please feel free to skip this one if you are triggered by topics surrounding sexual violence.
Umoja is the world’s first ever women’s only village. Located in Samburu, northern Kenya, the village is a place of refuge. Its original inhabitants were predominantly survivors of rape by British soldiers and Gurkhas (who fight for the British army). The village’s founder, Rebecca Lolosoli, had the idea to create Umoja whilst recovering in hospital after men beat her for standing up for women’s rights. Along with 14 other women, she founded the village in 1990, naming it after the Swahili word for ‘unity’.
As of 2014, 47 women and 200 children have made Umoja their home. It acts as a vital source of income and protection. However, some of its critics, including the local community, believe that Umoja does little to combat the wider issue of gender-based violence in Kenya.
Why are there still British soldiers in Kenya?
After first colonising the area in 1895, the British renamed the East Africa Protectorate to Kenya in 1920. The country gained its independence in 1963, following the Mau Mau rebellion. Today, several hundred British troops remain in Kenya as part of the British Army Training Unit (BATUK). Their presence is marred by controversy.
There are instances of unexploded bombs killing civilians, and numerous accounts of sexual violence. A 2003 report by Amnesty International alleged that, between 1965 and 2001, approximately 650 allegations of rape perpetrated by UK Army Personnel were made. The watchdogs reported that Samburu women received no compensation from either government.
In 2003, Samburu women met with UK law firm Leigh Day, bringing forward accounts of rape and impregnation spanning over 30 years. Over 400 women reportedly experienced such assaults from members of the British Army who had up to 100,000 British troops stationed in Kenya from 1983-2003. Speaking to The Guardian in 2003, solicitor Martyn Day reported instances of gang rape when women were running errands. Day disclosed the allegations to the Royal Military Police, but the RMP ‘came to the view that every single one of these entries had been forged’ and, allegedly, did not conduct DNA tests on the children concerned. Day never received the documentation back from the RMP, as it was reportedly lost.
In 2012, investigators found the mutilated body of Agnes Wanjiru in a septic tank, close to the British Army Training Unit camp. Witnesses last saw Wanjiru with two British soldiers. In October 2021, the UK defense secretary, Ben Wallace, claimed to be waiting on a formal request for help from the Kenyan authorities in solving the case. The Sunday Times reported that soldiers revealed the name of the murder suspect and that senior officers took no action, despite being aware of the case.
The UK Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act, effective from April 2021, stipulates a five-year statute of limitations. This means that there is a five-year period within which legal proceedings can take place, after which complaints cannot be aired in court.
Decades of sexual violence from foreign actors, and subsequent inaction from both governments illustrates why the women of Umoja took matters into their own hands. Policies and their makers failed to bring the perpetrators to account, forcing survivors into silence. In contrast, Umoja is call to action.
What are the experiences of some women in Samburu culture?
As well as a lack of legislative support, Samburu women experience widespread stigmatisation. Umoja’s residents told CNN that their husbands forced them out of their homes for allegedly dishonoring their families. Many originated from Samburu villages in the Rift Valley.
The Samburu people have close ties to the Masai tribe. In this patriarchal culture, child marriage and polygamy are common. In ‘beading’ ceremonies, fathers give their daughters their first necklaces and choose an older ‘warrior’ with whom the girls temporarily marry. If girls become pregnant due to a lack of available contraception, they must undergo an abortion. Girls as young as nine may enter into forced marriages as second or third wives in exchange for their parents receiving a dowry. According to the charity Girls Not Brides, in Kenya, 23% of girls marry under the age of 18 and 4% are married by the age of 15. Domestic violence is also rife, CBS reports that Samburu women have ‘a 95% chance of being beaten’ by their spouse. Hence, Umoja is ‘more of an anomaly’ in the region, according to CNN.
Who lives in Umoja?
Today, Umoja’s residents include survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM), rape, child marriage, and other forms of violence. Tourists can visit, and stay at a nearby camp run by the village's matriarchs. Jewellery sales are also a vital source of income for the women, with beaded necklaces holding symbolic value in the Samburu culture. The money raised from such enterprises supports the women and their families, as well as the Umoja Muehlbauer Academy. The village school provides children with an education and is vital in a culture where 73% of the Samburu (including many women and girls) may be illiterate.
Thanks to the importance placed on education in Umoja, some of the residents educate women and girls from outside the village about the issues they have experienced. This could help curb misogyny and gender-based violence in future generations.
Umoja resident Jane Nolmongen told Thomson Reuters Foundation ‘Among the Samburu, we, as women, are just like rubbish to our husbands’. Speaking to The Guardian, Memusi told her story: ‘I was traded for cows by my father when I was 11 years old [...] My husband was 57’. In contrast, fellow resident Learpoora has not met her father. She arrived in Umoja along with her mother to escape FGM. Leapoora told CNN that living in the village is ‘like having different mothers all around you’.
‘I was traded for cows by my father when I was 11 years old [...] My husband was 57’
The village’s inhabitants are predominantly women. Boys leave at the age of 18 and police may issue warnings or arrest warrants for any male trespassers. An elder from a neighbouring village claimed many of his fellow residents had multiple wives there. He reported that the women ‘get seduced’ and may become pregnant. Leapoora denied such claims. She stated that the only male visitors were men looking for their wives, and they would be quickly removed.
What are some controversies surrounding Umoja?
Umoja has many detractors. Despite it being a place of refuge, its founder Rebecca Lolosoli has reportedly experienced threats and attacks from men in surrounding villages.
One local resident expressed doubt over whether the women truly live in a single-sex community. He alleged that ‘They sneak off in the middle of the night to meet men or bring them into the village [...] Either that or they're using the story as a way to make money’.
Contrastingly, other critics have praised the village’s offer of sanctuary, but questioned its ability to combat gender-based violence. Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Faith Mwangi-Powell, global director of The Girl Generation in Nairobi, states ‘I think the women are very brave and we need more brave women and that's the only way FGM will end - so the Umoja village must be congratulated. But we need to figure out how this change can cascade to the entire community so that the girls growing up in the village remain safe when they leave the village’.
Furthermore, there is the issue of land ownership. Although the Kenyan Constitution grants women equal property rights to men, in reality women own less than 2% of the country’s titled land. In the Samburu culture, men make the majority of the decisions concerning land use and communal tenure (collective use of land by a group) remains common practice. As of March 2021, the women of Umoja stood to receive the title deed for grazing land from their local government. Such a right is ordinarily out of the question for Samburu women and could encourage more widespread land ownership for women. It may also provide protection against frequent disputes over land and water between the Samburu and their neighbours.
Local administrator Henry Lenayasa told Thomson Reuters that this exemplifies greater recognition of Samburu women’s property rights.
What can we learn from Umoja?
Umoja provides necessary refuge to women survivors of gender-based violence, symbolising hope and progress for its inhabitants and beyond. However, the question remains of how to integrate the women into local communities and remove the need for such initiatives in the future. The British and Kenyan authorities must also contend with the impact of British colonialism and sexual violence. Survivors urgently need their protection and support.
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean