The village was founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. Umoja’s population has now expanded to include any women escaping child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu.
Rebecca Lolosoli is the founder of Umoja and the village matriarch. She was in hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men when she came up with the idea of a women-only community. The beating was an attempt to teach her a lesson for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights. The Samburu are closely related to the Maasai tribe, speaking a similar language. They usually live in groups of five to 10 families and are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Their culture is deeply patriarchal. At village meetings men sit in an inner circle to discuss important village issues, while the women sit on the outside, only occasionally allowed to express an opinion. Umoja’s first members all came from the isolated Samburu villages dotted across the Rift valley. Since then, women and girls who hear of the refuge come and learn how to trade, raise their children and live without fear of male violence and discrimination.