Kenya’s New Guardians of Justice: Women Elders

To view this photo essay slideshow, click the photo thumbnails below the main photo.

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It is a new day for the women of Ol Pusimoru, a remote community in Kenya’s Rift Valley. For the first time ever, the community has elected fourteen women to sit beside men as traditional elders, resolving some of the community’s most difficult issues: disputes related to land. | © Deborah Espinosa

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For rural Kenyans, elders are the primary institution for help in resolving disputes. When there is a dispute, people will seek assistance from elders known for their wisdom and integrity. Elders will hold a hearing of sorts, listen to each person and witnesses, talk amongst themselves, and make a decision. With formal courts distant, expensive, and time consuming, elders hold the promise of affordable, speedy, and just resolution of disputes. But throughout Kenya, elders also are known as an all-male institution with entrenched biases against women based on traditional custom. | © Deborah Espinosa

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Parakuo Naimodu, mother of 11 children, is one of Ol Pusimoru’s new elders. For decades she suffered the abuse of her husband, but today she is a recognized leader. She shares, “I am very happy to be part of the justice system now because I think the all-male elders committee was very, very biased against women but now that we have women sitting in that committee we are going to have very, very balanced decisions about cases.” | © Deborah Espinosa

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What has made the difference in Ol Pusimoru? Kenya’s new Constitution, adopted in 2010, which guarantees Kenyan women unprecedented rights to participate in community decision making, to own and inherit land, and to access justice to protect those rights. | © Deborah Espinosa

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Parakuo, along with other women, chiefs, elders, teachers and youth, participated in Landesa’s USAID-supported Justice Project, which educated community members about women’s constitutional rights, including their new rights to own and inherit land. During months of workshops, guided community conversations, and trainings, Landesa staff encouraged the community to consider adopting the Constitution’s new ideals in their conservative, tradition-bound village. Here, during training for women on public speaking, Parakuo practices her new skills (with Landesa’s Soipan Tuya and Johnson Masiaine). | © Deborah Espinosa

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Says Parakuo, “I can see a change because the elders cannot ignore women’s issues anymore because even the men themselves, not just the elders, but even the men out in the community know that they cannot play around with women, denying them their rights, and their property.” Parakuo, left, stands before her community upon graduating from the Justice Project (with Landesa’s Caroline Lentupuru). | © Deborah Espinosa

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For Sara Otione, an Ol Pusimoru resident and mother of three, the elders have delivered on their promise. Separated from her husband and raising children on her own, her husband first refused her request for a share of their land. Explains Sara, “Before the Landesa project, the elders were not really concerned about my case, but now they are helping me through it.” With the elders’ intervention, her husband has agreed to share a portion of the family land with Sara. With land from her husband, she’ll be able to grow food to feed her children and sell the excess to pay their school fees. | © Deborah Espinosa

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With Kenya’s new Constitution comes a historic opportunity for Kenyan women to stand as leaders, property owners, and guardians of justice for all. | © Deborah Espinosa

It is a new day for the women of Ol Pusimoru, a remote community in Kenya’s Rift Valley.  For the first time ever, the community has elected fourteen women to sit beside men as traditional elders, resolving some of the community’s most difficult issues: disputes related to land.  | © Deborah EspinosaFor rural Kenyans, elders are the primary institution for help in resolving disputes.  When there is a dispute, people will seek assistance from elders known for their wisdom and integrity.  Elders will hold a hearing of sorts, listen to each person and witnesses, talk amongst themselves, and make a decision. With formal courts distant, expensive, and time consuming, elders hold the promise of affordable, speedy, and just resolution of disputes.  But throughout Kenya, elders also are known as an all-male institution with entrenched biases against women based on traditional custom. | © Deborah EspinosaParakuo Naimodu, mother of 11 children, is one of Ol Pusimoru’s new elders.  For decades she suffered the abuse of her husband, but today she is a recognized leader.  She shares, “I am very happy to be part of the justice system now because I think the all-male elders committee was very, very biased against women but now that we have women sitting in that committee we are going to have very, very balanced decisions about cases.” | © Deborah EspinosaWhat has made the difference in Ol Pusimoru?  Kenya’s new Constitution, adopted in 2010, which guarantees Kenyan women unprecedented rights to participate in community decision making, to own and inherit land, and to access justice to protect those rights. | © Deborah EspinosaParakuo, along with other women, chiefs, elders, teachers and youth, participated in Landesa’s USAID-supported Justice Project, which educated community members about women’s constitutional rights, including their new rights to own and inherit land.  During months of workshops, guided community conversations, and trainings, Landesa staff encouraged the community to consider adopting the Constitution’s new ideals in their conservative, tradition-bound village. Here, during training for women on public speaking, Parakuo practices her new skills (with Landesa’s Soipan Tuya and Johnson Masiaine). | © Deborah EspinosaSays Parakuo, “I can see a change because the elders cannot ignore women’s issues anymore because even the men themselves, not just the elders, but even the men out in the community know that they cannot play around with women, denying them their rights, and their property.”  Parakuo, left, stands before her community upon graduating from the Justice Project (with Landesa’s Caroline Lentupuru). | © Deborah EspinosaFor Sara Otione, an Ol Pusimoru resident and mother of three, the elders have delivered on their promise.  Separated from her husband and raising children on her own, her husband first refused her request for a share of their land.  Explains Sara, “Before the Landesa project, the elders were not really concerned about my case, but now they are helping me through it.”  With the elders’ intervention, her husband has agreed to share a portion of the family land with Sara. With land from her husband, she’ll be able to grow food to feed her children and sell the excess to pay their school fees. | © Deborah EspinosaWith Kenya’s new Constitution comes a historic opportunity for Kenyan women to stand as leaders, property owners, and guardians of justice for all. | © Deborah Espinosa
Deborah Espinosa

About Deborah Espinosa

At the time this piece was written, Deborah Espinosa was a senior attorney, land tenure specialist, and photographer at Landesa. She is a land law and policy attorney with expertise in land tenure policy, legal and regulatory reform, women’s access and rights to land, land-related conflicts and dispute resolution, land titling and registration, and legal literacy. She also has broad expertise in environmental and natural resources law. Deborah has performed rural fieldwork to understand land-related customary law for purposes of designing new land policy, legislation, and interventions, with particular emphasis on women’s access to land. She has assessed a variety of proposed and existing land laws and policies, land conflict and dispute resolution mechanisms, and government-sponsored land programs. She has managed land dispute resolution and legal aid programs. Deborah is also an accomplished photographer. She is responsible for many of the powerful images on this website as well as many of the beautiful images in Landesa's print material. Her international experience includes Burundi, India, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Russian Federation, and Rwanda. Deborah earned her J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law and an M.A. in Russian, East European & Central Asian Studies from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She also holds a Certificate in Career Training from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and a B.A. in history from the University of California, Berkeley.
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3 Responses to Kenya’s New Guardians of Justice: Women Elders

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