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The thorny trees and dung-caked homes of Umoja village make it resemble any other in Kenya’s northeastern Samburu region, except in one key detail – the absence of men.
Since it was established over 30 years ago, Umoja has provided a refuge for women from the Samburu community and beyond fleeing female genital mutilation, domestic abuse or child marriage.
“I used to be mistreated but now I feel free,” said 26-year-old Christine Sitiyan, a mother of four who abandoned her marriage because her husband physically assaulted her.
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Losing hope in the relationship, she first tried to return to her home village, but the cattle used as a dowry to secure her marriage had been stolen.
“When I went back home, I was just sent back to my husband because my mum did not have the livestock to give back,” said Sitiyan, who was adorned in a kaleidoscope of beadwork commonly worn by Samburu women. Her only option was to move to Umoja.
Christine Sitiyan, a woman from the Samburu tribe who escaped from gender-based violence, stands inside the Umoja village where men are restricted on Feb. 7, 2023. (REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi)
Three decades ago, Rebecca Lolosoli felt compelled to speak out about the violence she experienced at home and witnessed against women in her society, which is heavily male-dominated.
When her advocacy was met with hostility, she and 15 other women came together to form Umoja — which means unity — a village where men are banned.
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Now a thriving, self-sufficient community of almost 40 families, the women make money selling traditional beadwork to tourists, and from a nearby campsite.
As the village matriarch, time has done little to dim Lolosoli’s resolve.
“I am very proud to live in this village because now there is no one stressing me, and my husband will not assault me here,” she said. “I live as a mother with children who is fighting for rights against early marriages and FGM.”
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The village isn’t free from problems: local men routinely steal their cattle. But Sitiyan is in no hurry to let a man back into her life.
“I do not desire to get married again because I went through a hard time, I was being mistreated. I did not have rights and my children were not allowed to go to school,” she said. “Now, I am proud to be a mother.”