When the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues opened back in May at the UN, focusing on the theme of “Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources”, here is what Alice Lesepen had to say. From the indigenous community of Rendille Community in Marsabit County, Kenya, Ms. Lesepen works with women at the grassroots level, with a focus on the empowerment of indigenous women. She spoke to UN Women recently on what are the top priorities of her community.
Alice Lesepen. Photo: UN Women/Ryan BrownBeing from a Pastoral Community, we depend entirely on our land. We have livestock, cows, camels, goats and sheep, that’s our whole livelihood. We have a big communal land where we keep our animals and can move around freely.
One day, investors came in wanting to do development on our land. We didn’t know anything about it, we’d never been told, or asked for input. They just said that our land is being taken. They didn’t understand that we need the land for our animals, that we’re used to just going wherever we want on our land. It would mean our whole lifestyle would change.
We want to be heard, to be recognized when we say this resource is ours, this land is ours. This proposal needs to recognize that there are people living on this land, living here for decades. They need to respect our traditions, our cultural sites, the places we go to pray and our livelihoods. We want to be respected. Our land to be respected.
It really brought our community together, to work towards a solution. We started having community meetings, especially the women, to come together with one voice and claim back our land. We really want to be part of the development project. Can we be informed? Can it be done with our consent? So, we took the issue to court. It’s still in court now.
Rural and indigenous women’s voices are so important. We started our women’s group in 2002. Most of the women in the community had not gone to school, but we wanted to improve our livelihoods. We knew the only way to do this was by coming together, so we can bring together our ideas on land management and resource management. It’s so important for women to be able to learn, and understand all of this. That’s why we are seeing many women in better positions today, because we’re raising our voices. If we keep coming out and saying enough is enough, it will get better for us. We are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, but we still have a lot of work to do.
Now, for the community group, education is one priority. We’re working on a programme for girls’ education. Initially, some of the community’s progress on education was mainly for men, be we said no, girls should be given priority too. Within our group too, we teach language skills and teach women about their rights, and about conservation of land.
When I was young I never had the freedom to do my studies the way I wanted to, because girls were considered assets. The community and the uncles made the decisions. They could send you off, give you off to be married. I thought, something is not right. And then I thought, now that I know it’s not right, what can I do about it? I need to speak out, I need to say that we can do this, we can change. I started with myself, and then my family, and then keep going.”
A strong advocate for girls’ education and the protection of indigenous peoples lands and traditions, Alice Lesepen is a member of the Rendille Community in Marsabit County, Kenya. She works at the grassroots level to improve the status of indigenous women. Ms. Lesepen’s work relates to Sustainable Development Goal 1, which aims to ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as ownership and control over land and other forms of property. Her work also relates to SDG 4, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.