Since the 1960s, the Sengwer indigenous people living in the Embobut forest have been evicted many times. In recent years, the evictions have intensified.
The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) carried out the evictions, and remains committed to evictions. Last year, a KFS officer said that, “Burning of houses will continue as long as the Sengwer build houses inside the forest”.
A new report, published by the Forest Peoples Programme, looks at the impact of these evictions on Sengwer women. The report is written by Milka Chepkorir of Maseno University in Kenya. Chepkorir is a Sengwer woman.
Chepkorir explains why she carried out her research:
In contexts such as this, women have been known to face harassment. For this reason I set out to hear from them, through interviews, about their experience of evictions. I also aimed to get a true representation of their involvement in the struggle against forceful evictions and for recognition as a community. It is vital to understand women’s involvement and their decision-making power on issues that affect them and their children more directly in order to both safeguard them from harm and give a greater voice to their successes.
Chepkorir found that many Sengwer women have been affected directly by forceful evictions. All the women she spoke to reported living in constant fear. “Life has become difficult for Sengwer women and their families,” Chepkorir writes.
Sengwer women have faced psychological torture, physical abuse, assault and extreme poverty due to destruction of homes and shelters. The destruction of their homes particularly affects women, Chepkorir writes, because in Sengwer culture these are the spaces traditionally occupied by women and children.
KFS officers abuse Sengwer women verbally and physically, including sexual violence, during the evictions.
One woman told Chepkorir what happened when she was evicted, in June 2015:
“It was around 5am when I heard some noises from outside my hut; I thought the cow had broken its shade to graze. When I came out to find out, a man caught me and warned me not to scream. He covered my mouth and threw me to the ground; I remember being slapped several times and asked if I could go inside to get my belongings. As soon as I had finished, my house was set on fire and I watched it burn to ashes. My utensils and sufurias (cooking pots) were also broken using pangas and completely destroyed. I was arrested and was taken to the KFS camp with my baby on my back and some of my luggage on my head… my husband was not around so I had to call him from a neighbour’s phone to inform him of what had just happened.”
An elder explained that in the past men were arrested and women were chased away during evictions. Recently this has changed. Women are arrested and phone their husbands to come and make a payment for their release.
Sengwer family life has been disrupted by the evictions. Many men have moved to other parts of the country to look for new homes and land for their families. The clans and kinship system of the Sengwer is breaking down, affecting the traditional rules that guide marriages and other traditional Sengwer practices.
One group of women told Chepkorir that since they were evicted from the forest their families have scattered. Their children married or had children with close family members, despite the fact that this is forbidden among the Sengwer, and other communities in Kenya.
With the men gone for long periods of time, women are left to provide for their families. But often they have no business experience and have never earned wages.
Women are forced to become labourers on other people’s farms, in order to be able to provide food for their children. One woman said,
“We now go for waged labour which does very little to feed our families. Ever since we were evicted from the forest, we have lived in small, cold structures (other people’s potato stores) with the children. There has been no life for us since we were moved out of the forest.”
Kopyatich and Teriki are women in their 60s. They were born in the forest, but have lived outside the forest for about five years because of the evictions. They were facing a lot of challenges, Chepkorir writes, including extreme poverty and malnutrition. Kopyatich said,
“When was a woman even allowed to cut down a green tree? Why don’t they just allow women and their children to go back and live in the glades? Our children are suffering from diseases they never suffered from when we lived in the forest; there are a lot of problems and bad health conditions. We would just like to be allowed to access our herbs, good and fresh air and clean water in the forest for our children and grandchildren.”
Chepkorir concludes that the “evictions affected women and children more than other members of the community”. But she found that women were not included in community meetings about the evictions and the struggle to get their ancestral land returned to the community. She makes the following suggestions, to include women in the meetings:
The whole community should be aware and well informed on the importance of gender equity and gender balance when it comes to representing the community needs and rights. This will reduce chances of conflicts arising between couples and families whenever a woman is involved in the struggle.
Facilitation should be provided where possible to enable women to participate in and represent the needs of the community. If possible, meetings should be held close to their homes so they are able to attend them and give their views.