By: Rading Biko Gerro
The silent tears of women in Elangata Wuas area of Kajiado County cannot go unnoticed and more importantly, cannot remain silent. For a long time, these women have suffered at the hands of their very own men. Women in Maasai culture own nothing, they inherit nothing and live their lives remain clamped under the authority of men.
Maasai activists say it is nearly impossible to expect a Maasai woman to be elected to political office. But not anymore as women are daring to walk the men’s path. Here, patriarchy dominates and has gone unquestioned for decades until recently when women realized that they too, need a sense of belonging. And fast!
Elangata Wuas is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai, a people with a strong sense of culture. This tribe is famously known for pastoralism, which is their major social and economic mainstay. Cows are integral to Maasai lifestyle, providing them food, livelihood, and are even part of their culture, with marriage customs revolving around the animal.
Action Aid stepped in 2011 to set up a Local Rights Program also known as LRP. The project aimed at ending the violations of women’s rights and girl child rights in Elangata Wuas which has a deeply rooted traditional practices which subjugates and relegates women as secondary members of the community.
The patriarchal nature of this community means that everything, including a wife, is a man’s property. Men make decisions concerning all property that is owned without consulting the woman. Though the woman contributes significantly to the wealth of the family, she does not own any property nor has any say as to how the property is used. She is seen as part of the property.
For these reasons, leadership is also male dominated. Women do not get a chance to take part in community decision making structures. In rare occasions when they get a chance, they don’t make any significant contributions because they have been socialized not to be vocal in such forums.
The community is over reliant on livestock keeping for livelihood, and has become vulnerable due to recurrent droughts and diminishing land. Most of the Maasai community has sold their lands. When drought strikes, the community loses their main source of income and they are left to rely on relief food. This has continuously aggravated poverty levels, as community members have to start all over again to build their stocks. Since this is a recurrent cycle they never get back to their original position.
More than 116 women across the LRP were trained on Women Rights. This aimed at enabling women to claim their space in leadership as well as advocate against violation of rights. This has seen women organizing themselves in groups for their own economic empowerment and advocate for their rights. Two years after the LRP training, Loodokilani Women Network was birthed. This group first consisted of only 45 members.
“Some women were afraid of joining the movement since they fear the men who would turn against them, but after winning their heart they joined the movement”, says Alice Tiapapusha.
Alice Tiapapusha is the secretary general of the network that now operates in 6 locations and 10 sub-locations.
Loodokilani Women Network Goals
Girl Child Education
Despite many efforts by Loodokilani organizations to stop the vice of gender discrimination, many girls are ending up in this trap. The network leaders in the area are up in arms and continue to challenge their men to stop the vice. Luckily the new constitution calls for an end to all forms of gender discrimination including early marriages and the women are using this clause to petition for their rights.
“We want our girls to go to school and become meaningful in the society,” Ms. Tiapapusha says. She adds that with the new constitution, her organization will ensure that women in the area venture into leadership. The organization has lobbied for women to be leaders in churches, schools and micro-finance institutions. She tells me that this has yielded positive results as the area now has more women in leadership.
“Illiteracy is a major hindrance here but you do not need a university degree to bring development in your area”, says Tiapapusha. This is rightly so, as I realized that even those women who cannot read or write have very brilliant aspirations which they are ready to actualize.
Female Genital Mutilation
After decades of awareness and campaigns, 93 to 99% of Maasai girls are still subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is believed to inhibit sexual desire and promiscuity among girls. Men value the act and consider it as a woman’s pride, with little regard to the effects associated with it. In this men take the right to marry (buy as many female slaves as they can afford). They refuse to marry girls who have not undergone the cut.
When the government and other non-governmental Anti FGM-crusaders chastised Maasai men for practicing the vice, Maasai elders defended the act and warned the government to ‘stop meddling with their culture. “Men insist on the continuation of FGM as a way of maintaining the culture,” laments Tiapapusha.
Domestic violence and early marriages
Women play a significant socioeconomic role within the Maasai community. It is a woman’s role fetch water and feed the cows, build manyattas- Maasai houses, cook, maintain the home and look after the children.“Women rarely get time to rest and look after themselves”, admits Tiapapusha. “They go to fetch water, and can be attacked by animals and men. They face the risks of being raped while carrying out these tasks”, she adds pensively.
Violence against women is common, with the patriarchal society according to Ms. Tiapapusha. “Men’s position and power dynamics within the family is emphasized through domestic abuse and it’s something the network vows to put to an end”, says Tiapapusha.
Women empowerment and leadership
The community describes Loodokilani group as the ‘savior’ for women empowerment. They are subtle in their approach while raising issues, while they are not cowed by men or culture. They have been trained by Action Aid on capacity building, so they support women organizations and urge women to form self-help groups that would boost them economically. Women can now take charge of their own development and are able to market their products better.
Maasai women who have gone through the program are now fully aware of the clause that calls for equal rights of women and men, in the case of owning property ownership and inheritance. Interestingly, some Maasai men are coming up in large numbers to support women’s emancipation. The few I talked to want their women to be at par with women from other Kenyan regions.
Loodokilani Women Network Achievements
Since inception four years ago, the network has rescued four girls from early marriages who are now under the care of a children’s home in Kajiado County. They have also 20 cases of FGM in the area by sensitizing both the girl child and the parents on the effects of FGM and need for education of the girl child in society.
Loodokilani network have facilitated bursary for a number of girls in the community and helped women start up small business as a way of making a decent income apart from their pastoralist livelihood.
Challenges facing the Network
Limited funds to reach other parts of the county and rescue women from oppressive cultures. They need more funding to meet their budget constraints.
Transportation is a challenge and they heavily rely on boda-boda- motor bike riders to carry out their duties.
Lack of cooperation from some NGO’s and government as some of the existing organizations feel as though they are in competition with the Loodokilani Women Network. More collaborations are still needed in their work. There is also need for the county government of Kajiado and the leaders to join their efforts.