By Paola Brigneti
In August 201, Kenya promulgated a new Constitution which promised the right to own property to “every person,” and the “equitable access to land” and “security of land rights.” As this new constitution went into place, there was no acknowledgment of women’s historical landlessness situation in the country. In fact, despite this new language, many women in Kenya are still without land and, in the cases in which they are entitled to their husbands’ land, their rights are trampled by traditional beliefs and practices.
If the Kenyan Constitution gives women the right to own land, why do women still face challenges when it comes to asserting this right? In most cases, it’s men who get in the way between women and their rights and, as reported by Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization, customary laws in sub-Saharan Africa have greater influence than civil law when it comes to women’s property rights.
For example, in Kenya, many ethnic groups believe that land and other property owned by a woman, whether acquired before or during the marriage, belongs to her husband. By this standard, men can sell the land without getting a woman’s consent. Women are only believed to have a role in taking care of the property. Even if her husband dies, the land will not belong to her, but will be inherited by her husband’s family. In this last case, women are likely to be ostracized because they are seen as a burden to the political family.
The traditional views on women’s ownership of land are reflected well in a saying used in Northern Kenya’s Samburu culture, where men are believed to be the head of a body, and women are believed to be the neck. As the neck, women support the head, but the head, which represents men, is always dominant and always towers above. In other words, no matter how much work women do in the household, or to support their families, men will always have the upper hand and the final decision. In the specific case of land, it means that men will over prevail over women.
There is a place in Kenya, however, where women are their own heads in addition to their own supporting neck. That place is the village of Umoja, which means unity in Swahili.
Umoja is a community comprised of only women—with the exception of men who were raised in the village—most of whom have been abused, raped, or expelled from their homes due to reasons like becoming a widow, and thus being a burden to the late husband’s family.
In Umoja women can find a safe haven from the traditional roles and beliefs that usually prevent them from becoming the best person they can be.
For the 22 years it has existed, women not only have been able to own land in Umoja, but they are able to receive an education, save their own money, and invest in their community as they see fit. Most importantly, in Umoja, women have created a place free from violence, oppression and discrimination.
The impact of this village formed by 48 women from all across Kenya has spread to other communities in the area. Women from neighboring villages come to Umoja to attend workshops, receive education, and learn about human rights, gender equality, and violence prevention. Having created a women-friendly community, Umoja women are actively engaged in bringing the same ideals to other women as well. They are planting the seeds for the future.
The story behind many women in Umoja would automatically put them in a vulnerable position anywhere else in Kenya. The hardships they have had to endure make them more likely, in general, to be in a susceptible position in society. But, instead, they have become leaders of their community and are working towards changing the status quo.
Umoja’s main income source is derived from the sale of beadwork, profits from a nearby campsite, and from a cultural center. All funds are collectively used to support all the residents in the community.
The beauty of this does not only lie in the trust and generosity of all community members, but also in the fact that Umoja provides a clear example of what research has long tried to explain: When women are able and free to fulfill their fullest potential, they are able to work, save money and—this is unique to women—invest back in their communities to make them stronger. When not restrained by cultural norms, women are the best developers of their own communities.
If this does not show that women do not need an extra head over their necks, then what will? I think the head analogy would be better used to exemplify the burden that men can be in women’s lives.
Umoja might look like a dream to many people. Some might think it is an impossible system to recreate because it goes against the deeply seated traditional practices and beliefs. However, as the Swahili proverb says Haba Na Haba Hujaza Kibaba (little by little fills the pot). Every great journey begins with a single mile. In Umoja, over 20 years ago, a handful of women began a journey towards freedom, independence, peace and happiness. They probably began that journey with a single step, little by little, and they have certainly achieved a lot since then.
Let’s hope this phenomenon spreads, even if it is just little by little, and we start seeing Umoja become more of a rule and less of an exception. I truly believe that would make for a better world.