Saturday, July 14, 2012

Women-only village created to protect Christian women from abuse and forced marriage

In the Samburu District in the Rift Valley Province in northern Kenya lies a village that is only inhabited by women who, in some form or another, have been victims of male abuse and were forced to leave their homes.

The story of the village of Umoja, which means “unity” in the Swahili language, goes back to 1990 when 15 women from the Samburu district formed a group called the Umoja Uaso Women’s Group.

Members of the group, who focused on women’s empowerment, decided to create and sell handcrafted products to be able to provide for themselves. They were, however, constantly harassed by men in their society who were against the independence of women.

To escape growing persecution, group members, led by the charismatic Rebecca Lolosoli, decided to leave their homes and establish a village for themselves, away from men who only seemed to want to subjugate them.

The village proved a great success and was gradually turned into a place where any Kenyan woman who has suffered gender-based abuse could come live.

Residents of the village are women who were raped or sexually assaulted as well as underage girls escaping forced marriages. There are also widows who were mistreated in their communities. The village has also become a provider of political asylum as several women fleeing tribal violence in the Turkana District, also in the Rift Valley Province, choose to live in Umoja.

Villagers here earn their living by selling their handicrafts as well as from a cultural center they established. They agreed to use all their earnings to provide for the entire village.

In addition to food and basic needs, revenue is also used for medical care and for maintaining a school that teaches reading and writing to young girls and illiterate women and offers training on a variety of skills.

Umoja is governed by a set of rules the women established. In addition to banning men from living in the village, all female residents should be treated as equals and should respect each other. They are also required to wear their traditional costume and accessories at all times in order to preserve the cultural heritage of the village.

The only males allowed to stay in the village are children who were born or raised there.

Umoja residents are not against having men in their lives in principle. In fact, many young women are planning to get married and have families. The only difference is that they are determined to do so on their own terms to ensure that their rights are never violated again.

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