Rebecca Lolosoli is much more than the matriarch of Umoja Village, an all women’s community located in the Samburu District of Kenya. She put herself on the line for others…her life has been threatened for going against the indigenous Samburu traditions and culture. What started in 1991 as a group of 16 raped women, denounced and outcast by their families, on a patch of sun-dried, neglected land, granted to them by the Kenyan government at the behest of Rebecca is today a unique group of 50 flourishing, happy women and girls, orphans and widows and even a few beloved goats. They had been facing social and economic difficulties and were abandoned by their families, or were fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage, or female genital mutilation (FGM). They had no land, no guarantee of human rights, and no protection under the law. Often, they were victimized over and over as they lived on the streets, vulnerable to continued violence and maltreatment. Rebecca saw the need to gather these women together and work collectively to find strategies for survival, and to begin to change the way families and communities in Samburu treat women.
With the help of other women, Rebecca has been able to provide a safe haven for the women in her community who have been tortured, beaten, and raped. Despite repeated threats and attacks from men of neighboring villages, she continues to work for women’s rights. Her goal is to curb violence against women and the negative cultural practices that are harmful to women’s health, safety and well-being.
The Umoja Village Community Center has also provided a welcome gathering place for women throughout the region who are encouraged to visit and learn from Rebecca how they can improve their economic situation and wellbeing. Whenever Rebecca or her sisters attend training workshops with groups like Vital Voices, they return to share what they have learned with all the women of Umoja and surrounding communities in business, advocacy and craft marketing skills. The Samburu women of Umoja are now able to provide for their children and themselves through the sale of their beadwork to the tourists visiting the nearby Samburu National Reserve, as well as through the Vital Voices export development program. What began as a small group of women who could not speak up to their abusive husbands or ever speak in public are now vocal defenders of their human rights, including land ownership, safe water, health and education. Rebecca has led them in the struggle for gender-equality and violence protection. Rebecca is more than a matriarch, she is a wise teacher who has transformed the lives of many women.