Interview with Milka Chepkorir: Sengwer women in Kenya and their struggle for land rights

Milka Chepkorir Kuto

Interview with Milka Chepkorir: Sengwer women in Kenya and their struggle for land rights

Milka Chepkorir Kuto is a human rights activist and member of the Sengwer indigenous people, who live in the the Embobut and Kabolet Forest, Kenya. For the last three years, Milka has been focusing on indigenous women and their role in defending land rights. In occasion of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we have spoken to Milka about her work and the importance of including women in the struggle to retain ownership and control over their lands. 

Where is the traditional territory of your people and what are the threats that you are fighting to retain ownership and control over your lands?  

The Sengwer territory is Cherang'any hills in Kenya. Currently the community lives in the Kapolet forest and Embobut forest. The community faces many threats from the government and from other people, including forced evictions, discriminatory policies on forest management, forced assimilation, and non-recognition by the government.

What are the impacts of this struggle on women in your community? The impacts of the loss of lands and resources? 

Forced evictions have affected women and children more directly than any other group in the community. Women have lost their families since men run away to avoid being arrested, and they have been traumatised since witnessing their houses burning to ashes. One of them confessed that she will never forget how her granary burned with the only food she had for her children. Women have lost faith in the government that should be protecting them but is in fact violating their rights.

Some women have been assaulted by government officers while being evicted and efforts to look for justice have been in vain since the police have not treated the matter seriously. There are fears that other women and other community leaders have been assaulted and tortured but have not spoken out because of this. Since men are often on the run to avoid being arrested, women have to take on their tasks as well as carry out their own. The economic status of women and families in general has declined: many properties have been destroyed, money is used to bail out community members who have been arrested, and the livestock has died because nobody could take care of it.

Why are gender considerations important in the way that you struggle for land rights?

In the Sengwer community, women are traditionally not allowed to own land and they are not involved in any decision making process. Most of their activities, however, are deeply connected with the land and despite the difficulty of speaking out because of traditions, women are the most affected by land conflicts. Gender consideration is very important to enable both men and women to give their perspectives on how land issues affect them differently. 

Women are known to carry the concern of many in their hearts, it is important to have them in the struggle for land rights. Women are very clear that they need for the Sengwer to be granted collective community ownership of their lands, rather than individual title (whether for men or women). Individual titles would simply mean that more dominant non-Sengwer people will find ways of taking their land from them, whereas with collective ownership the Sengwer can protect their forests, secure their livelihoods and be able to care for their children. 

I’d like to share the voice of another Sengwer woman here too: “It is very painful to me because the Government says our community lands – Kapkok, where I was born - are their lands. I feel a lot of pain. If someone comes and takes away what belongs to you how will you feel? We know very well that it is our land. God in heaven is looking and there is nothing that can be taken just like that. We are really disturbed. We now have to live in Kapkok under trees, in caves. When it rains like yesterday and it is very cold, we really feel for the children. Here we are talking about dialogue, so why don’t your [Kenya Forest Service] officers stop harassing us while we talk? We are being arrested in our own homeland. We won’t fear anybody, we will speak the truth. My prayer is that God helps us to do what we can do as we pursue this dialogue process.”(Sengwer woman representative at Eldoret meeting with National Land Commission, 20th April 2016)

How are you working to ensure that women have a say in the struggle for land rights for your people and community?

I have been working to empower women and to make sure that they are included in the land rights struggle. With the help of Forest Peoples Programme, I was able to carry out a research on the effects of evictions on Sengwer women. The recommendations included further efforts to empower women and to educate men from the community on the need to have women on board for the land rights struggle. I have encouraged women to speak up and give their contributions during any forum that would give them the chance. This has also been done with them speaking Sengwer language while being translated into English or Swahili. In cases where Sengwer women cannot participate, I have personally taken such opportunities to speak for women and children in the Sengwer community.

Do you have any recommendations for people working in the wider land rights movement? Any messages? 

For those working for land rights specifically in African communities, I would say that it is time to be realistic and see what women go through in the name of culture and traditions. We all know how much women suffer when land and resources are lost in a community and it’s therefore vital to understand the need for both genders to be included in decision making processes. This will help to reduce the gender conflicts that tend to arise among families and communities when there is no understanding of why women should be included in the community land rights struggle.

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