Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a major issue of concern in Kenya considering the number of women and girls who undergo the outlawed practice every year.
Following this, a village founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of sexual harassment by local British soldiers provides a safe haven for women and girls fleeing from the vice.
The thorny trees and dung-caked homes of Umoja village make it resemble any other in Kenya’s north-eastern Samburu region, except in one key detail — the absence of men.
Since its establishment, the village provides a refuge for women, from the Samburu community and beyond, who are fleeing female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic abuse, or child marriage.
According to Rebecca Lolosoli, the founder and matriarch of Umoja village, the idea of establishing a women-only community came to her while in hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men.
The beating was an attempt to teach her a lesson for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights, contrary to Samburu customs.
Umoja is now a thriving, self-sufficient community of almost 40 families with the women making money selling traditional beadwork to tourists, and from a nearby campsite.
“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,” Lolosoli revealed.
Umoja village has been a safe haven for hundreds of women including 26-year-old Christine Sitiyan who abandoned her marriage due to domestic violence.
“I used to be mistreated but now I feel free,” Sitiyan said indicating that she is in no rush to let a man back into her life.
According to Sitiyan, after she lost hope in the marriage to her husband, she first tried to return to her home village, but the cattle used as a dowry to secure her marriage had been stolen.
“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.”
However, Umoja Village is not free from problems as local men routinely steal their cattle.
Furthermore, Lolosoli has not completely managed to keep men out of the village as some women still maintain relationships with men from outside the village.
“It’s funny because you don’t see men around here but you see small children, which means women go get men outside,” Lotukoi, the only man allowed in the village to attend to the herds of cattle owned by women told Guardian in a past interview.
Regardless of the challenges, Umoja village remains a unique village in Kenya and a safe haven for many Samburu women and girls who are running away from FGM, abuse and forced marriages.