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Kenyan Women Step Up Fight for Land Destined for Coal Mine as 30,000 households likely to be affected

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Kenyan women harvest maize in Kenya, Oct. 9, 2008. VOA
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Africa, Jan 20, 2017: When the Kenyan government announced five years ago that coal deposits had been found in the Mui Basin, a land of rolling hills and pristine forests east of Nairobi, local farmers hoped the discovery would help transform their livelihoods.

But as villagers prepare to leave their loamy, fertile soils to make way for the multimillion-dollar mine and power station development, many households fear they will miss out on compensation because women do not have titles to their land.

Traditionally, Kenyan society is patriarchal and ownership and decisions on land management or disposal are made by men.

The villagers’ situation reflects the predicament of thousands of women throughout Kenya who head their households but are not named on land ownership documents.

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Around 30,000 households will be affected by the proposed coal mines in the Mui Basin, said Alex Nganga, leader in the local county assembly.

There are no definitive figures for how many local families are headed by women, but it is known that there are many.

“We were anticipating that women would be listed in title deeds as co-owners or joint owners of land,” said Kasyoka Malonza, a Mutito community representative in the Mui Basin.

“It’s unfortunate that we have not been recognized despite all our efforts,” she said.

A national problem

According to the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Kenya now has a raft of progressive laws aimed at ensuring gender equality but customary laws continue to limit women’s rights to land and property.

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The Land Registration Act, introduced in 2012, includes provisions for joint tenancy and gives wives a legal right to land that is held in the other spouse’s name where the woman has contributed either in financial terms or through her labor.

FIDA estimates that only five percent of all land title deeds are held jointly by women with men, and only one percent of land titles in Kenya are held by women alone.

This is despite figures that show that around 32 percent of households are headed by women and that they are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the farming work.

A report on gender issues and the effect of coal mining in the Mui Basin prepared last year with Canadian government support also highlighted the need to ensure fair compensation for land for women who live in polygamous households.

More power for Kenya

The coal-rich Mui Basin covers around 500 square km and is located around 270 km (170 miles) east of Nairobi. It has been divided into four sections for mining development.

A Chinese firm, Fenxi Mining Group, was given rights to develop half the area in 2011. Another Chinese company, HCIG Energy Investment Company, with Liketh Investments Kenya Ltd won rights to develop the rest of the area and build a coal-fired plant in 2015.

The east African nation hopes that coal from the $2 billion power plant will not only help supply Kenya’s cement and steel industries, which import large volumes of coal, but also save on foreign exchange by cutting import costs. Surplus electricity will be sold into Kenya’s national grid.

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George Kariithi, director of the Great Lakes Corporation, a Kenyan partner of the Fenxi Mining Group, said the company could not comment on the issue of land compensation and ownership rights.

“We have left that for the government to handle,” he told Reuters.

A spokesman for the National Land Commission told Reuters that questions on land titles and the mining development must be referred to the Kitui County government.

But an official for the county said he could not comment, as it was a matter for the Land Commission.

Women fight back

Christine Kalikanda of the advocacy group Center for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRCE) said the group was working in the Mui Basin as well as many other areas of Kenya to teach women how to ask for their property rights.

“We mobilize communities to voice issues collectively,” she said, adding that CHRCE has also developed guidelines to help villagers negotiate fair, market value compensation.

According to local residents, however, there has been very little interaction between the mining companies and local communities.

Activists say that the government itself has not been forthcoming either and communities still have no idea where churches, markets and water points are to be relocated.

Simon Mutui of the campaign group Kenya NGO Council said widows and single parents are particularly worried, as they have no legal claim to their land at all.

“Children born out of wedlock stay with their maternal extended families but have no claim to land, as their mothers lack inheritance rights, they have no claim to compensation,” he said.

For Mutito community representative Malonza, the answer lies with the Kenyan government.

“It should guarantee women’s rights both for ownership and the equitable division of assets,” she said. “We want to see that even women in polygamous families get an equal share.”-(VOA)

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The Tale Of Dying Dreams In The Name Of Tradition

Tony Mwebia of the Men End FGM campaign said visits to primary schools show that even as early as age 10, there are far fewer girls than boys.

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Maasai girls and a man watch a video on a mobile phone prior to the start of a social event advocating against harmful practices such as female genital mutilation at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya. VOA

It was during her first year of high school in rural western Kenya that Mary Kuket says she was “sacrificed to tradition” and her dreams of becoming a doctor shattered forever.

With no explanation, the 15-year-old was given away to another family, who forced her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), then married her off to their middle-aged son.

“I kept asking my parents why I was being taken and begged them not to send me away, but my father pushed me away, saying that soon I would understand,” Kuket, now 46, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Baringo county. “They never told me I was going to be cut. They never told me I was going to be married to a 45-year-old man. They never told me that I would not go back to school.”

From the fear of being ostracized or killed to the prestige associated with entering womanhood, girls in Kenya are under a barrage of societal pressures to undergo FGM, often with a devastating impact on their education, say campaigners.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt,(VOA)

A study by the charity ActionAid Kenya published Monday said despite the fact that FGM is illegal in the east African nation, deep-rooted myths supporting the ancient ritual persist.

Violence ‘normalized’

The survey, based on interviews with almost 400 girls and women in eight Kenyan counties, found that FGM affected not only their health but also their schooling.

“Despite efforts to curb FGM, this type of violence against women and girls is so normalized in some communities. Girls are socialized into believing they must undergo the procedure,” said Agnes Kola, women’s rights coordinator for ActionAid Kenya. “But it is stifling their ability to participate in society, as once they undergo FGM, their schooling is impacted and many never complete their education and progress in life.”

Girls missed school to recover after the procedure and suffered medical complications and trauma that affected their class attendance and performance, the report said.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM
Students arrive at the start of a social event advocating against harmful practices such as female genital mutilation at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya. VOA

Seen as a rite of passage in many communities, FGM also acted as a trigger for girls as young as 11 to become sexually active and married off as they were perceived as women — often ending with child pregnancy.

As a result, fewer girls than boys in Kenya’s FGM-prevalent counties were finishing their primary education, and even fewer were transitioning to high school, the study said.

While national figures show secondary enrollment of boys and girls in year one to be almost equal, in some FGM-prevalent counties, enrollment of girls in the same group is less than half that of boys, according to government data.

‘Ticket for marriage’

An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the genitalia, the United Nations says.

FGM
Girls sit in the yard at Kalas Girls Primary School, Amudat District, Karamoja, Uganda, Jan. 31, 2018. They each escaped home after their families tried to force them to undergo FGM or to enter into marriage. VOA

Despite being internationally condemned, it is practiced in at least 27 African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East, and is usually carried out by traditional cutters, often with unsterilized blades or knives.

In some cases, girls can bleed to death or die from infections. FGM can also cause lifelong painful conditions such as fistula as well as fatal childbirth complications.

Kenya outlawed the practice in 2011, but it continues as communities believe it is necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters’ marriage prospects.

One in five females aged 15 to 49 in Kenya has undergone FGM, according to U.N. data.

The study in eight counties found fear of being rejected for marriage, ostracized by the community or even killed was pushing girls to undergo FGM.

In the eastern county of Garissa, Muslim communities were cited as saying anyone who was not circumcised was not permitted to worship and could easily be killed.

FGM
Amran Mahamood used to circumcise young girls in Hargeysa, Somalia, but stopped after a religious leader convinced her the rite was not required by Islamic law. VOA

“Religiously, we are told that circumcision makes girls to be clean before God, and it is only after undergoing this practice that the girls can be allowed to read the Quran or to worship,” said a woman from Garissa, cited in the report.

Elsewhere, girls and women said they were expected to undergo FGM to comply with cultural expectations of marriage.

“FGM is considered as the community-given ticket for marriage, thus it results in automatic suitors or bidders, which is absolutely the parent’s choice,” said the report. “Young men will ensure their wives get circumcised at the time of marriage.”

Progress hindered

Soon after being cut, the girls, who are drawn from communities in which up to 98 percent of women and girls have undergone FGM, said they struggled to continue with school.

They were absent for weeks to heal and also suffered infections and trauma, according to the report.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM
 A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. 

The practice also provides social sanction for girls to be married off or have sex, often resulting in pregnancy.

Tony Mwebia of the Men End FGM campaign said visits to primary schools show that even as early as age 10, there are far fewer girls than boys. “Sometimes it’s just one or two girls compared to a whole lot of boys,” he said.

Campaigners said government and civil society had neglected remote, insecure regions where FGM was most prevalent. They called for specific budgets to be allocated to these areas, using positive messaging to engage with communities, and for better coordination between charities.

For Kuket, however, all is not lost.

After 20 years of marriage and seven children, she went back to school, finished her secondary education and has enrolled to work toward a degree in community development.

Also Read: ‘The Restorers’: Kenyan Girls Use Technology to Combat Female Genital Mutilation

She is also a prominent human rights activist in her community in western Tangulbei, where she rescues girls who are being forced to undergo FGM and pushed into child marriage.

“I don’t want any other girl to go through what I did,” she said. “FGM is a barrier to a girl’s progress in life — it ruins their lives.” (VOA)