There are few women in the world who do not recognise and adapt to patriarchal structures in their society. As far as we have come in the fight for equality and women’s rights, most still live in a man’s world. However, there are places where women have the power, both in traditional societies where women have always ruled and communities where women have fought for control. In some small pockets, the matriarchy rules.
War is increasingly becoming devastating to civilian populations, typically producing a situation where patriarchal and other oppressive structures are amped up to the max. This ends up hurting those already vulnerable – women, children, the poor. When Colombia saw a modern civil war spanning over 50 years , these groups also included indigenous peoples and afro-Colombians. As in most armed conflicts, those fighting were mostly men, yet the war was felt just as much – if not more – by women. Eighty percent of the casualties were civilian and almost six million were displaced, often intentionally and by force. Women were also raped and taken as spoils of war, often leading to them being shunned by family an society. Many women ended up living impoverished and vulnerable in shanty towns outside major cities after fleeing horrors in their home towns. These were struggles that paved the way for “the city of women”.
The organisation Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas was founded by Patricia Guerrero as a way of dealing with the hardships faced by women who had fled their homes due to the war. For a group of women who had fled to El Pozon, a shanty town in Cartenga, Colombia this took a very physical form. Together the women in the orgnisation built a town of ninety-eight houses that are all owned by the women themselves. The Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas has done more than give secure and empowering housing to the women – it has also become a platform for demanding reparations for the damage done to the women during the war. Their resistance has created a strong belief in the working together, where both the accommodation and struggle for justice is based in the group not the individual.
In Umoja, Kenya, the women had a more extreme solution for similar issues. Founded by Rebecca Lolosoli and victims of rape by British soldiers, Umoja now protects those who have suffered at the hands of the strong patriarchal structures in Samburu culture by excluding men entirely. The village is a refuge for girls and women who have lived through nightmares like rape, forced marriage, and genital mutilation. In normal Samburu villages an all-male council hold the power and women have few rights. If they are raped many are shunned or beaten by their husbands and by other men in the community. Even speaking up for the rights of women and rape-victims has similar results.
Umoja has also inspired other matriarchal villages in the surrounding area. There are some differences; one allows men to live there and, like the women’s village in Colombia, only requires that they accept a new equal position, equally shared workload and female ownership of the property. Another is closer to a reverse patriarchy where men do most of the work but women hold the power.
The origins of these different modern matriarchies color the way they are run. In Colombia the women reacted to the abnormality that is war and the struggles that come with a lack of legal institutions. In Kenya, women reacted to what is accepted as normal. Women being raped and then beaten by their husbands as if it was their fault is not the result of chaotic governance and violent clashes between groups – it is the default. Their circumstances were not extraordinary and their tormentors were often family. Living without any men at all seemed like the only solution to the problem.
The strength of women who make their own way is inspiring, but they often face the consequences. In Colombia there are few work opportunities and many live in poverty. In Kenya, women have faced harassment by men from the surrounding area who set up roadblocks and tried to keep tourists from visiting. Women in Umoja rely largely on tourists paying the “entry fee” and buying the jewelry made by the residents. This is surely empowering but it is tied to global power structures which are not innocent either.
The Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas explicitly founded their “city” looking for a dignified life. Even though both communities are better than the alternative, they are far from breaking bigger gender structures. The lack of institutional change in the fight for gender equality makes these villages exceptions. Hopefully these exceptions help develop the rule as we may be seeing in the Samburu region but it is hard to tell, and maybe they will remain unique.