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Gunman Attacks Women's Village in Kenya

Oneworld.net, News report, Brittany Schell Posted: Aug 22, 2009

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (OneWorld.net) - A gunman attacked a women's village Tuesday in northern Kenya, threatening and chasing women from their homes, an advocacy group reported. The police have yet to take any action to stop the man, the former husband of the village's founder.

The gunman, Fabiano David Lolosoli, allegedly came to the village looking for his former wife. Rebecca Lolosoli founded the village of Umoja Uaso in 1990 as a refuge for Samburu women abused by their husbands. Witnesses say he was threatening to kill her, but she was not at home.

When Ms. Lolosoli founded the village, the deed for the land was in the name of Umoja Uaso. Her ex-husband, a highly connected local businessman, has since succeeded in having the deed changed into Ms. Lolosoli's name, so he now stands a better chance of inheriting the land.

The 48 women living in Umoja Uaso have fled the village, and sources say Mr. Lolosoli is still lurking in the area with his gun. Groups like the Advocacy Project, which supports women's organizations in the region and worldwide, are urging police to protect the women there from further violence, but authorities have yet to take any action.

Sources close to the Advocacy Project say local officials told Ms. Lolosoli that the attack is considered a domestic issue and police would not intervene.

Until now, the village has been a peaceful haven for abused women. The women work together to raise livestock and support themselves by selling hand-made, beaded jewelry. [See the full story from The Advocacy Project below.]

Women's Rights Limited in Kenya

The reaction of Rebecca Lolosoli's former husband is not unusual in Kenya, where sexist attitudes are widespread. In 2002 Human Rights Watch conducted interviews of Kenyan men, who typically said women were "untrustworthy, incapable of handling property, and in need of male protection."

Patriarchal customs in the country dictate that men inherit and control land, leaving women with very few property rights. In Kenya, a woman's access to property usually hinges on her relationship to a man. This helps explain Mr. Lolosoli's threatening reaction to his ex-wife and the village she founded -- the traditional view is that women do not deserve to own or manage land.

Even though Kenya's constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, this protection is widely undermined by local customs. The government and local leaders often ignore women's property claims, saying they do not want to interfere with culture.

Women seeking to assert their rights are often ignored, and may be beaten, raped, or ostracized from society. "A woman is nothing in our community," said Ms. Lolosoli.

Denying women the right to own land is hindering Kenya's development. International organizations have identified women's insecure property rights as contributing to low agricultural production, food shortages, underemployment, and poverty.

Fighting for Change in Kenya

The Umoja Uaso women's group is a pioneering village helping to fight the many inequalities faced by women in Kenya. Besides limited property rights, women are plagued by sexual harassment, forced marriage, genital mutilation, and rape.

"You aren't able to answer men or speak in front of them whether you are right or wrong," said Ms. Lolosoli. "That has to change. Women have to demand rights, and then respect will come. But if you remain silent, no one thinks you have anything to say. Then again, I was not popular for what I was saying."

Many residents of the all-female village said they had been raped and, as a result, abandoned by their husbands. Umoja Uaso was founded as a refuge for these ostracized women -- Umoja means unity in Swahili. What started as a group of homeless women has now become a successful and happy village. The women also run a cultural center and camp site for tourists visiting the nearby Samburu National Reserve.

The village has attracted attention, locally and internationally. In 2005, Ms. Lolosoli was invited by the United Nations to attend a conference on gender empowerment in New York City. She told the Washington Post that local men threatened to kill her just before her trip to the United States.

Sebastian Lesinik, the chief of a neighboring village, voiced his opinion on Lolosoli and her women's village to the D.C.-based newspaper: "She's questioning our very culture. This seems to be the thing in these modern times. Troublemaking ladies like Rebecca."

Empowering Women in Developing Countries Worldwide

But troublemaking women like Rebecca Lolosoli are helping to empower women in developing countries all over the world. For example, the INFRADE sewing center in the Democratic Republic of Congo is giving women the skills to start a new life and helping them cope with the mental and physical trauma caused by decades of conflict in the country. INFRADE is a French acronym that stands for "reviving the inner power of a woman."

Ritu Sharma and several colleagues from the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Women Thrive Worldwide recently spent a week in Burkina Faso, meeting with local women's groups, women farmers, government officials, and other development organizations. They learned about the lives of women farmers and asked what local governments and outside assistance programs can do to empower them.

According to the Center for Development and Population Activities, which works to improve the lives of women and girls around the world, research shows that when societies invest in women, there is an "important multiplier effect," because women are most likely to share economic gains with their family and community.

"When you empower a woman, you empower a family. When you empower a woman, you change the world," said UN chief Ban Ki-moon last month on World Population Day.

This article was compiled by Brittany Schell.

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