An All-Female Community? Examining the Effectiveness of Umoja

by Jayati Ramakrishnan

Women are not the sole recipients of sexual assault, nor are men the sole perpetrators. However, statistically speaking it’s a fairly one-sided problem. There are many initiatives in effect to alleviate the immense problems that women face, but one community in Kenya took it a step further: they created a community without men.

Umoja, a small village in northern Kenya, was founded in 1990 by a woman named Rebecca Lolosi. The community originally comprised 15 victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. After the incidents, these women joined together and began selling their handmade projects, including beadwork, to support themselves.

According to the community’s official website, many men threatened the women, jealous of the success they were finding in earning their own money. In response, the women founded their own community - and it was open only to women.

Since then, women have come to the community for different reasons: to seek refuge from sexual assault, to escape forced marriage, or to find a community where they can feel safe and supported.

Women are still free to come and go at will, and while men are not allowed to enter the village, women from Umoja can meet them, and many have children who live with them in the community.

It’s a bold approach to stopping sexual assault, and thus far, seems to have been successful. An investigative piece in The Guardian revealed that many women in the community feel they’ve been able to thrive in the village unlike they could anywhere else.

“I have learned to do things here that women are usually forbidden to do,” one resident of the community said.

Several others affirmed that they had no interest in living around men again after coming to this community.

Learning about this approach to gender inequality brings up a few questions: In examining some of the common problems that surround gender inequality, it would appear at first sight as though this community has gone to the heart of the matter - eliminate gender inequality by creating a community where there is only one gender.

So can this model be replicated to help women in other areas? According to the Umoja website, several women from the community split off from the original group in the late 1990s and formed their own group, called the Nachami Women’s Group. Another Kenyan village, the women of the group alleged they were unhappy with the original group’s leadership, and formed their own faction.

Outside the rural setting, a few communities do exist: in 2012, a women’s-only industrial city was founded in the Saudi Arabian province of Hofuf. The purpose in this case was geared more toward allowing women to work in an environment that allowed them to put their education and training to use, while not breaking their religious and cultural rules that limit their interaction with the opposite sex.

While this approach appears to be effective in allowing women to realize their potential and, in the case of Umoja, preventing sexual assault, it bears consideration: does eliminating men oversimplify the problem? Is banning men from a community an effective way to make a statement about gender equality, or does it just dismiss the problem as unsolvable when, in reality, it desperately needs to be addressed?

A single-gender community can help alleviate issues of sexual assault and harassment in some controlled circumstances, but I would argue that ultimately, it still avoids the problem because segregating the genders further emphasizes that women are to be treated differently than men.

Educating boys about gender equality from an early age and creating a culture where women are respected would ultimately be the most thorough solution to this problem  That may be easier said than done, but a true sign of improvement will be when women can live in a community with men and not have to fear sexual assault or gender inequality, rather than one where they have to ban them to feel safe.