Manuel Kitololo and Charles Iliga grew up in Taita Taveta county. Both men lived in the Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancy, a protected landscape of 17 conservancies.
For many generations, men reigned supreme with women facing many injustices such as being denied leadership positions in conservancy boards and committees, gender-based violence, child marriages, and land and property ownership, among other injustices.
The two men may have had opposing views on this way of life, but how could they contemplate changing the way things had been done for as long as they could remember? Perhaps it was best to leave things as they were. Kitololo and Iliga didn’t want to irritate the men who seemed to be stroking their egos with this order.
“When I was growing up, my mother and sisters were not allowed to accompany us (men and boys) to the ranch because it was considered a sacred place, and they (women) were not allowed to go near livestock,” Kitololo says.
He adds that it was always the responsibility of fathers and grandfathers to ensure boys understood this way of life from a young age.
“As a result, men grew up believing that ranching and wildlife conservation were exclusively male pursuits with no place for women,” he says.
Although his father was a ‘good man,’ Kitololo recalls witnessing his mother go through unimaginable trials and tribulations. She had no say in family or community affairs. She had nothing and couldn’t make any decisions.
Despite the fact that she was in charge of the cows and milked them, it was her husband who decided whether or not the milk would be sold.
A woman’s place
She couldn’t even decide where to build a cowshed or anything else about the land. Land and property belonged to men, not to women, including wives and daughters.
A woman’s role in Taita culture was limited to household chores, not decision-making.
A woman could not hold any position of leadership in conservancy boards, committees, or the community - not even that of a village elder,” Iliga said.
He goes on to say that women’s voices did not matter in family or community matters. Iliga says he grew up witnessing all of these injustices against women and girls and vowed that one day he would try to right them. He says many women and girls have been subjected to extreme gender-based violence, some for reasons beyond their control, such as not having sons, the preferred gender.
Women and girls were also denied the right to inherit property from their fathers, as the community preferred to educate boys while marrying off girls early.
Kitololo has had a similar experience. Both men live in conservancies, where vices abound, and women are voiceless in matters of leadership and decision-making at the family, conservancy, and community levels.
“I lived in a conservancy where the land was owned by a group of ranchers.” “Women were members as well, but they were not represented on the boards and committees that ran the ranches,” Kitololo explains, adding that even after the ranch was turned into a wildlife conservancy, women were still left out of leadership.
“For the longest time, these vices have been deeply ingrained in these communities, with women and girls bearing the harsh consequences of these injustices, while men stand aloof, ignoring the voices of reason,” Iliga says.
Conservancies are registered parcels of land, often adjacent to national parks, that are a collection of properties whose owners have banded together to care for ecosystems, animals, and the land.
They are unfenced, and wildlife freely roams between the conservancies and the parks that they border. They are not the same as a nature reserve, a game reserve, or a conservation area.
According to the two men, the TTWCA, which encompasses one million hectares, has recently faced greater challenges of gender inequality, discrimination, and gender-based violence, all of which are attributed to harmful social and cultural practices, to the point where something had to be done.
The situation drew the attention of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies, the conservancy’s umbrella organisation, which sought assistance in launching a campaign against the vices.
The assistance came in the form of an 18-month Resilience, Innovative, and Sustainable Environments (RISE) project that trained champions to spearhead this sustainability campaign.
Using CARE International’s Social, Analysis, and Action (SAA) training model, the TTWCA board and staff members engaged in self-reflection to challenge their deeply ingrained gender stereotypes and biases against women.
Iliga and Kitololo say after the five-day training workshop, they were so challenged by the “self-reflection” session that they felt compelled to change the status quo within their community, conservancy, and beyond.
They joined forces to put an end to the injustices that women faced.
Despite his upbringing, Kitololo believes in women’s leadership because he recognises the benefits it provides at home and in the community.