On freeing Kenya's pastoralist communities from discrimination

An interview with Justine N. Leisiano on her work defending girls’, women’s and disabled people’s rights in the semi-nomadic pastoralist Samburu community.

Che Ramsden
11 September 2016

Justine N. Leisiano, human rights defender and Director of RACEP.

This article is part of 50.50's in-depth coverage of the 2016 AWID Forum being held on 8th -11th September in Bahia, Brazil.

Justine N. Leisiano was one of the first people I met at the 13th AWID International Forum, as we navigated our way to the opening plenary together. Then and over the following days we talked about her vision (the forum theme is ‘feminist futures’, after all), her work and her experiences over the past days at the forum. Her very personal experience encapsulates so much of AWID in that it is intensely local but highlights many overarching concerns of the global feminist movement.

Justine, who is from Samburu County in northern Kenya, is at AWID as part of the FIMI International Indigenous Women’s Forum delegation. FIMI networks Indigenous women leaders in Asia, Africa and the Americas; at the AWID Forum, alongside Indigenous women from other parts of the world, Justine took part in the FIMI-organised panel ‘Dialogue of knowledges: Indigenous women human rights defenders, working against discrimination and for the prevention of violence’. Together they shared their knowledge and experiences as human rights defenders in their communities. 

There are so many positive things about the Samburu community, explained Justine, including how they have preserved their religion and culture. I asked what specific aspects of Samburu culture were the most important to her: “there is much more of a community than you might find [elsewhere]. At the end of the day you do not each go alone to your separate houses, you gather together, maybe around the fire, and you discuss what has happened in that day. If someone has a problem, they will bring it to the whole community and the community will solve it together.”

This is something Justine reiterated the following times we met. “[Samburu people] still carry most of their culture and tradition,” of which, she measures, “80% is good, 20% is harmful.” Of the good, “people are united, and there is the spirit of the religion which means there is no destruction of nature, we respect nature” including the animals which are integral to their livelihood, though much of this, she notes, is being threatened by climate change. In addition, “the language is still there, the way of dressing is very beautiful –” she gestured to her necklace, “– we somehow look like the Egyptians!” Justine suggested that because Samburu people have migrated over time, they may well have been in Egypt and influenced Egyptian styles. “Some of the religious practices are similar.” Indeed, Samburu history extends even further back than Ancient Egypt: “we are the birth of all humanity, everything comes from Samburu-Maasai.”

What about the role of women in her community? “That is the harmful part.” The Samburu community is highly patriarchal, reinforced over generations; gender inequality and stereotyping are entrenched norms, influencing the socialisation of young people and their attitudes. Justine cites violence against women including female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriages and forced marriages, and points to her data which shows 50% of girls leaving school due to ‘poverty, forced marriages and [becoming orphaned].’ Meanwhile men who perpetrate violence have near impunity. 

Justine is also deeply concerned about violence against people with disabilities, especially children and women. As a trained teacher with an additional diploma in teaching children with special educational needs (SEN), Justine has witnessed the conditions in which children with disabilities grow up, hidden away and, in an area where 73% of the population live below the poverty line, often lacking basics such as clothing. Infanticide is common, and Justine believes that the key to preventing this lies with women: “it is the men who kill the children, so if we can empower the mothers then they will be able to put a stop to it.”

Community Empowerment Programme 

Like me, this is Justine’s first AWID forum, though it is not her first international conference, having attended the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2015. This took place in what sounds like a packed two years in which Justine undertook a diploma in Women’s Leadership through FIMI and, with a small grant of KSh 300,000 (£2,235), set up her own organisation called Ramat Community Empowerment Programme (RACEP), provided skills training for women and mediation for schools to include girls and children with disabilities, and continued to work as a teacher – in fact, a headteacher – in a school for children with SEN. 

At the end of our first conversation, Justine gave me her business card. She described how the logo summarised the work of RACEP: pointing to the bottom left, “there is the girl child – she is wearing traditional clothes – she is not in school;” on the right, “there is the disabled child, with the mother; and all of this,” she circles the background, “is in the context of the homestead, the community.” 


RACEP logo.

Justine characterises her strategy, in the hard-copy information and funding proposals she has brought to AWID, as ‘an ecological approach to the prevention of violence against women and girls.’ The ecological approach recognises that people exist within a social and structural environment and its pressures, including patriarchy. So RACEP will work in 18 public schools with 720 boys and girls as they enter adolescence to unpick their assumptions about dominant masculinity. RACEP will work closely with school leaders and train teachers from all 18 schools to run ‘gender clubs’ and a transformed social studies curriculum (the first step being a ‘gender training manual’), supported by officials from the Ministries of Education and Gender and trained young adult facilitators. Church leaders, journalists and professionals with responsibility for child protection will also be targeted. 

At the same time, Justine has plans to build an Empowerment Centre which would provide education, training and employment opportunities for local women. She envisions ‘a Kenya where pastoralist communities live free from any form of discrimination against them’ and within them, looking also to ‘the eradication of negative traditions that affects the girl child and women.’

What next?

As we finished our final interview and I started packing away, Justine suddenly looked at me sharply and checked, “have you noted all the challenges?” She is relentlessly positive when she talks about her work but also methodical and structured in her thinking, so the change of tone caught me off guard despite it not being out of character for her to want to check that everything is captured fairly. I hesitated, “I’ve noted the funding and resourcing” – aside from the grant which provided training and resources for a small community project to enable mothers to earn an income, RACEP has as yet received no funding. When it does, Justine will be able to reduce the time she spends at her school and pass some of those responsibilities on. 

Justine considered this and nodded, “If we also had more materials that we could share with women, for example information on gender-based violence.” She looked in the direction of the AWID conference rooms, “these things exist here” and she hopes to share in the wealth of knowledge and tools produced by other women here.

As someone who does so much, and therefore takes on a personal burden for the many aspects of the work she does, I wonder what Justine does to avoid burnout. It is an issue, alongside self-care, that has been raised every day in talks, workshops and plenaries. Justine admits that some days she worries about her school and their ability to continue; while the government ensures that children are provided with an education (indeed, Justine has submitted a proposal to the government to expand the school) it does not ensure that they are fed or that the buildings are kept up.

“Some days I think, ‘this food is going to sustain them tomorrow, [but] what of the day after?’” When new children enrol in school (“most of the children…are still naked”) she quickly rallies support from her friends to find clothes for them. She also takes on an emotional burden to support mothers who are themselves exhausted and struggling to keep up.

Justine visibly relaxes when she explains, “in the evening I go to my inner self and make myself very strong.” She gives herself space to think and make considered decisions about how she will get through the following day and the needs it will bring. No longer feeling overwhelmed, “I make plans then and I talk to people for food, medicine, clothing.” 

Patriarchy, violence against women, disability rights, climate change: “these things are all related” and AWID offers a chance to connect and explore similarities, tactics and tools. For Justine, the collaborative space that AWID Forum opens up is the best part of it all. “AWID has been so important for me. You have got time here to interact with so many people – to tell, listen – it has been very educative, I am learning a lot from people telling…their experiences.” It evokes for me the ‘politics of friendship’ offered in the first plenary session. “It is encouragement,” says Justine, to hear about how women have overcome similar challenges elsewhere. “We have a very bright future.”

All images by Ché Ramsden


Ché Ramsden will be reporting daily for 50.50 from the AWID Forum. 

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData