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Violent reform: gendered experiences of colonial developmental counter-insurgency in Kenya, 1954-1960

Rebisz, B. (2022) Violent reform: gendered experiences of colonial developmental counter-insurgency in Kenya, 1954-1960. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00115139


This thesis focuses on the relationship between colonial counter-insurgency tactics and international humanitarianism in the context of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, 1952-1960. It uses villagisation, a counter-insurgency measure enforced during the campaign to administer tighter control over the movement of civilians, as a site to interrogate the relationships between humanitarian organisations, the colonial administration and the displaced indigenous women and their children. More specifically, the thesis analyses the supposedly reformative practices deployed by the British colonial government and external actors in response to women and girls suspected of supporting forest fighters. The British Red Cross Society (BRCS) worked in partnership with the colonial administration to publicly endorse ideas of African women’s advancement and development. While the colonial government projected a reformative discourse for their approach to women and children, evidence presented in this thesis shows that this process was gendered and inherently violent in practice. Villagisation in this campaign operated as a tool to subdue a specific demographic of the Kenyan population suspected of fuelling anti-colonial action: women and girls. While Britain’s treatment of Kenyan women and girls was violent, resettled women adapted and adopted their own resilient responses to ensure their own survival and that of their biological and social families. Females made active and reactive choices to cope, survive, and at times thrive in these fraught and dangerous spaces. Women’s actions were influenced by their position in their society and how they saw themselves based on their age, gender, and social standing. This thesis recognises that counter-insurgency campaigns create opportunity for women to improve their socio-economic status. This is explored through the narratives of Kenyan women who were forcibly resettled in Kenya during the 1950s. These testimonies are used in conjunction with archival evidence from the British colonial records and organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, BRCS, mission societies and the East Africa Women’s League. This cross-referencing enables an exploration of European women’s roles in colonial counter-insurgency campaigns, humanitarian, and development work. Assessing the interactions between forcibly resettled women, humanitarian field workers and colonial state actors, this thesis contextualises the associations between local contexts, colonial actions and global humanitarian trends during this period. It can then better uncover trends and differences in the relationship between local and international humanitarian action, determining how colonial practices cut across both.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Schmidt, H.
Thesis/Report Department:Department of History
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:115139
Date on Title Page:August 2021


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