This Women-Only Village In Kenya Is Challenging Traditional Gender Roles

Posted on September 22, 2016 by

For over 20 years, a small community in Kenya has been embarking on a rare experiment: a community without men, where women are the homeowners and breadwinners. Around 50 women and 200 children live in Umoja, a small village several hundred miles north of Nairobi, in the dry grasslands of the Samburu region.

According to The Guardian, Samburu culture is “deeply patriarchal. At village meetings men sit in an inner circle to discuss important village issues, while the women sit on the outside, only occasionally allowed to express an opinion.”

In 1990, Rebecca Lolosoli founded the village as a refuge for women who had experienced gender violence – including child marriage, female genital mutilation, and rape by British soliders. In addition to offering a safe place women to live, Umoja residents teach girls from neighboring villages about issues related to gender inequality.

Many of the women have turned to entrepreneurship as a way to support themselves. They charge visitors a small fee to enter the village, where they sell traditional handmade jewelry and crafts. They also operate a campsite for tourists on safari in the Samburu National Reserve.

The women don’t shun men altogether, but are intentional about whom they allow to visit the village and whom they partner with. In neighboring villages, men serve as the “head” of the household and describe women as the “neck”; many of them have multiple wives. In Umoja, it’s the reverse: some women have children with multiple fathers – whom they meet outside the village – but aren’t expected to marry or live subordinately to them.

Lolosoli says she’s received threats from neighboring men — including when she traveled to a U.N. conference on gender in New York City — but stands firm in her role as matriarch of the village. She was the first Samburu woman to successfully request a divorce, and ran against her husband for political office.

A second community called Unity Village (the name Umoja also means “unity” in Swahili) was founded in 2011 by some former residents of Umoja.

To learn more about Umoja, check out this documentary by Broadly on YouTube, or this article about the village in Wilson Quarterly:

Photo by The Advocacy Project

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