No Men Allowed: Go Inside the First All-Women’s Village in Kenya

Founded by 15 rape survivors, Umoja is now home to 42 women and 200 children seeking refuge from sexual violence.

A woman carries water in Umoja village in the Samburu region of northern Kenya. (Photo: Kitra Cahana/Getty Images)

Aug 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

In a country struggling with sexual violence and gender inequality, a surprising safe haven for women has emerged: Umoja, the first all-women’s village in Kenya.

Founded more than two decades ago by 15 rape survivors, Umoja—located 230 miles north of the capital of Nairobi—has become a refuge for women escaping from domestic violence, rape, child marriage, and female genital mutilation. Today, Umoja has a population of 47 women and 200 children who have created a completely self-sustaining community. The women run a nearby camp for safari tourists and visitors, sell handmade jewelry and crafts in the village, and host educational outreach performances at surrounding villages, helping teach other women about their rights.

Not only are they earning an income from these activities, but the women are also fostering a sense of self-confidence they didn’t have before.

“I have learned to do things here that women are normally forbidden to do,” a Samburu village woman told The Guardians Julie Bindel. “I am allowed to make my own money, and when a tourist buys some of my beads, I am so proud.”

(Photo: Kitra Cahana/Getty Images)

Gender-based violence is widespread in Kenya. Thirty-two percent of girls experience sexual violence before they turn 18, according to a 2010 national survey. Just last year in Nairobi, a video emerged of a woman wearing a red dress being stripped naked by a mob of men who accused her of being inappropriately dressed, sparking protests across the country. Twenty-seven percent of girls in the country undergo female genital mutilation, and 26 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF.

For young girls living in Kenya’s more rural communities, the situation is often worse—child marriage is a common practice among families in need of money, livestock, or other resources.

“I was traded for cows by my father when I was 11 years old,” one village woman said. “My husband was 57.”

Other women Bindel spoke to described being sold off as children to men as old as 80, or being beaten by their husbands after revealing they had been raped by another man. Indeed, Umoja’s founder and matriarch, Rebecca Lolosoli, came up with the idea for the women-only village when she was in the hospital recovering after a group of men beat her for speaking about women’s rights.

In this deeply patriarchal culture, stories like this are not uncommon. Women typically have no say in village affairs and are often beaten for expressing opinions or standing up for their rights. The 15 original founders of Umoja were reportedly raped by British soldiers in Kenya during the now 40-year military partnership between the two countries, something that came to a head earlier this year when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta threatened to scrap the partnership if the accused soldiers were not allowed to be prosecuted under Kenyan law.

RELATED: No Innocent Bystanders Here—New Law Cracks Down on Child Marriage, Clerics Included

While Bindel said that many of the women told her that they “couldn’t imagine living with a man” after moving to Umoja, they also told her they still “like” men and want to have children. For women in this culture, having children is even more important than being married. As evidenced by the 200 children in the village, women are still seeking relationships outside of the village, something the men in surrounding villages find amusing, according to Bindel.

“It is not good to be unmarried and have children in our culture,” one young mother of five, all from different fathers, told Bindel. “But it is worse not to have any. Without children, we are nothing.”

But without men, some are doing just fine.

“Outside, women are being ruled by men, so they can’t get any change,” an elderly woman told Bindel. “The women in Umoja have freedom.”