This originally appeared in FrontLines, November/December 2012 issue.
With the groundbreaking election of 11 female village elders, a USAID-backed pilot project seeks more equitable governance and protection of women’s assets.
Parakuo Naimodu is an unlikely success story. A mother of 11 children, she has lived in the town of Ol Posimoru in southern Kenya for years—at one time, with a husband who beat and verbally abused her. Only five of her 11 (four sons and one daughter) children finished school.
To resolve her domestic troubles, Naimodu sought the help of the local elders. Elders traditionally hold the authority to decide disputes that bind both men and women in Kenya’s villages. Naimodu hoped they would help intervene to stop her husband’s beatings. But the elders, all men, sided with her husband. And bringing a case against him only led to more abuse when she returned home.
The couple eventually separated, but Naimodu’s husband continued to verbally abuse her whenever they passed in the village.
This all changed on July 10, when Naimodu and 10 other women in Ol Pusimoru, an area with a population of about 2,500, were formally elected as elders.
Elders meet on an as-needed basis to resolve land and other disputes, including family problems. They help to resolve everything from boundary disputes and trespassing to cattle rustling and criminal cases, including rape. Depending on the case, hearings are held with testimony by both parties and witnesses, and site visits help the elders to gather information. Elders may impose various penalties, including fines in the form of livestock or chickens, apologies to the aggrieved party, and other forms of punishment. Decisions may be appealed to a government court, but the court system is expensive and often intimidating for women.
Once Naimodu became an elder and an expert in her legal rights, her life dramatically changed. Her husband stopped harassing her. She says that he heard she was trained in women’s constitutional rights and a recognized member of the dispute-resolution system. “[H]e knows he cannot interfere with my life anymore without facing the consequences,” she explains.
Naimodo and her sister elders are all beneficiaries of USAID’s pilot project, the Kenya Justice Project (KJP), designed to help village elders and other justice officials support and enforce women’s rights to land and to have a say in how forest resources are governed.
The 11 woman elders have broken the mold in a country where women’s rights to equal participation in society are still very fragile, according to Deborah Espinosa, Africa program director for Landesa, the implementing NGO that works to secure land and property rights for marginalized groups around the world.
“Thanks to Kenya’s new constitution, gender equality is now a legal requirement. Women have greater legal protection of their rights to own and inherit property and to share in marital property,” says Espinosa. “The important challenge now is for Kenyans to know about these rights and to protect and enforce them in a country where women are not traditionally property owners,” she says, explaining that male relatives frequently sell family land without consulting women; and that women are routinely thrown out of marital homes by in-laws when husbands die, plunging them and their children into dire circumstances.
This kind of family-based “land grabbing” is widespread in Kenya, Espinosa says. “With their male counterparts, the women elders may help to bring an end to these harmful practices by enforcing the law.”
“The [Kenya Justice] project helps women and girls learn about their legal rights and it builds skills so that they can take on a bigger role in decision making in their homes and in their communities. This project also works with men and boys so that they understand how women contribute to the community,” says Achieng Akemu, senior rule of law adviser at USAID…[continued]
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