Rebecca Lolosoli came up with the idea of a female-only village in 1990. She was in the hospital at the time, recovering from an attack by a group of men who were angry that she had spoken to other women in her Samburu village about their rights. She founded Umoja in the grasslands of Samburu, in northern Kenya, with a group of 14 other women, all of whom were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. In the 25 years since, Umoja has grown and is now home to 47 women and 200 children. It's a safe haven for women looking to escape child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), domestic violence, and rape—all of which are unfortunately common in the patriarchal societies they were living in.
Recently, Julie Bindel from The Guardian traveled to Umoja to listen to the women's harrowing tales of what led them to seek out a village with no men.
"The British army got me when I was collecting firewood. There were three of them. They pushed me to the ground. Since that day, I have always felt pain in my chest whenever I remember," a woman named Ntipaiyo, who has lived in Umoja for 15 years, recounted.
Attempts to prosecute British soldiers for an untold number of rapes spanning 30 years led to a mass dismissal of the cases by the Royal Military Police and a claim that all the submitted evidence had been lost. But it's not clear that legal recourse would have made much of a difference for the Kenyan women anyway—many of the women fled to Umoja because their husbands had spurned them following a rape, as is quite common.
"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," explained Sammy Kania, 33. Another resident, Seita, who doesn't know how old she is but carries an ID card with a 1928 birth date, confirms this. She came to Umoja because as a survivor of rape, "I would never be able to marry."
Others left their traditional villages earlier in life, after having been sold as child brides to men many decades older than them in exchange for livestock. Memusi ran away in 1998, one day after her wedding to a man 46 years older than her. She was just 11 years old at the time.
But in Umjoa, they find relative peace and independence. They make a small but sufficient living running a tourist campsite nearby and selling beaded jewelry to tourists who visit the village.
"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. The children who populate the village are not all from before their mothers moved to Umoja.
"We still like men," a younger woman said. "They are not allowed here, but we want babies and women have to have children, even if you are unmarried." Children seem to be the primary motive for seeking out male companionship for these women. "Without children we are nothing," one young woman, who has five children all with different fathers, said.
Men in nearby villages, who remain skeptical, see the desire for children as just one in a long list of reasons that Umoja will never work. "They think they are living without men, but that is not possible," said a nearby elder named Samuel.
But it is possible. At least for these women who have found refuge and a new lease on life. Judia, a 19-year-old who has lived in Umoja for six years, explained, "Every day I wake and smile to myself because I am surrounded by help and support."
[h/t The Guardian]