GARISSA, Kenya – As sun sets on Sankuri village, a group of women take advantage of the dropping temperatures to convene their weekly business meeting.
Qali Hassan, the chair of the Sankuri Women Milk Hawking Cooperative Society, has a hectic time bringing the 200 women members to order, as some engage in animated group talks, while others ululate and dance to prepare the ground beneath a 100-year-old acacia tree, which symbolizes peace and respect for human life.
Hassan, 55, is here to lead a weekly radio listening session, where group members can tune in to tailored radio programs on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, farming techniques and investment opportunities in their native Somali language.
As a program starts that reminds women about their land and property rights starts, the mood among the women changes. Immediately, the discussion turns to the struggles they have gone through to get ownership of their land, livestock and property, and the abuse they have received as a result.
Hassan reminds the gathering about what inspired her to fight for her land and property rights in this culturally conservative northern region of Kenya.
“When I was 15 years of age and I was forcefully married to an elderly man who paid my family 10 cattle as dowry. I protested, but was overpowered and went through hell with my abusive husband, whom I divorced in 1995,” she tells the group.
“I used to look after my husband’s goats and camels. When we divorced, I left him with 60 camels and 300 goats, and he gave me nothing. I just wanted my freedom so I moved on.’’
Other women told of being ejected from their homes after the death of their husbands or due to divorces, polygamous unions or separations.
“We were called names by other women because of demanding basic rights for women to own what is theirs, or what they have inherited from their parents or husbands,” Hassan says.
Nasra Abbey, 35, speaks of the property empire she built while living with her husband, and subsequently lost.
She ran into trouble when she started asking her husband to change his habit of chewing khat, an addictive leafy stimulant. She says he had developed psychological and mental problems as result of his substance abuse.
The enraged husband called community elders who decided that Abbey had no right to ask her husband to change his lifestyle, and gave him the authority to decide whether to punish her or part ways. He chose divorce, and Abbey lost everything.
“I was not given opportunity to defend myself in the cultural court and my husband had the upper hand,” she tells News Deeply, on the sidelines of the meeting.
“Immediately after the cultural session, my property empire, comprising houses I built and registered under his name and livestock which was associated with his name, all remained with him.”
“I could not go to court because during that period cultural court proceedings and verdicts were respected by Kenyan law.”
The law changed in 2010, when Kenya got a new constitution guaranteeing women’s property rights over cultural claims. But it was too late for Abbey. “By that time he had sold everything and moved to Somalia.”
Spreading the Word on Land Rights
The 2010 constitution may have guaranteed women their rights, but that didn’t mean everyone was necessarily aware of them. The constitution was published only in English and Swahili, not in Somali, the language spoken by the 2.4 million-strong Somali community in Kenya.
To raise awareness of constitutional rights, the Pastoralist Journalists Network in collaboration with women activists, began to develop radio programs about land, livestock and property in Somali language.
“We partnered with women’s groups in educating communities on the new constitution,” Dekha Hassan, program coordinator with local media organization Pajan Kenya, says.
“We used drama series, radio features, call-in sessions and special programs to break down the chapter on women’s rights.”
“The community radio worked well, and reached all corners of the remote region of northern Kenya.”
It seems to have had an effect. Between 2012 and 2017, Garissa County’s land registry processed mass applications from women wanting to transfer land into their names. So far, 14,700 transfers have been made with another 72,000 applications under review by land tribunal board, a representative of Garissa County told News Deeply.
A New Empire
The new constitutional environment that guaranteed women property rights also offered them chance to set up their own cooperatives. That’s how the Sankuri Women Milk Hawking Cooperative Society was born.
The cooperative was formed in 2011 by activists, divorcees, widows and other village women – including Hassan and Abbey – who had faced cultural injustices.
They started with 60 camels, contributed by the first members, then applied for a bank loan to buy more camels, increasing their milk supply, as well as establishing kiosks to sell the milk from in Garissa town, 180 miles (290km) away.
Today, the group operates 50 kiosks and has a stock of 500 camels, with an overall market value of 50 million Kenya shillings ($492,000).
Now, they plan to buy a refrigerated truck, so they can ferry camel milk to Nairobi, more than 400 miles (644km) east, to serve the Somali diaspora there.
Though the law protected them, at first some members of the local community were not supportive of the women forming their own cooperative.
“They regarded women as children,” Hassan says. “[They thought] we could not be trusted with land, property or livestock.”
“But look at our business portfolio – operated by women who were disinherited and abused!”
“[Some] men are feeling jealous of us and our progress, others are apologizing to us for ill-treatment,” she says.
And, in a remarkable change of fortune for women who had previously lost everything when their marriages ended: ”Others are inquiring if we are divorced so that they can marry us and be part of our prosperity.”