Tanzania has been good to me so far. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every woman who tread this ground. I am a privileged woman who grew up in societies that recognize me as a person, a person entitled to rights and not only, but most of all equal rights. I have the privilege of taking my own decisions without having to refer to a man. I have the privilege to access knowledge, and knowledge is power. I have the privilege of talking for myself, expressing my thoughts, my opinions, my ideas, be heard, argue, discuss and disagree if I wish.
Though it is still more or less challenging to be a woman anywhere on Mother Earth (ironical, isn’t it), Tanzania is a place that is on the ‘more challenging’ side of the planet – and that is an euphemism.
I came here as a volunteer, working as a legal consultant on women’s rights concerns at a local NGO (Inherit Your Rights). I have discovered that as much as the Tanzanian law seems extremely egalitarian, the legal system here is still a reflection of the society. Quick explanation. Tanzania is a result of colonial history, just as the rest of the continent. In order to avoid ethnic conflicts, Independent Tanzania opted for a culturally concerned approach of the legal system. This results in a very modern constitutional law, that still recognizes other legal systems. Hindu law, Muslim law, and the most discriminating for women -also the most common one in the area of Arusha – Tribal Customary law, are still applicable within the respective communities.
Every tribe has its own customs, most (of course!) are not codified- which does not make the task of understanding Tanzanian law any easy; FYI there are about 120 tribes in Tanzania… .Arusha is a Maasai area, so we mainly work with Maasai people here. In the Maasai culture women’s status is very limited. They are married to their husband after a family arrangement, and she is then ‘bought’ from her family by the man. Maasai is a polygamous and patrilineal society. A woman only has rights as long as she is a wife. If she divorces or becomes a widow, she looses everything. In order to understand this, one needs to know more about the Maasai society.
Maasai are semi-nomadic people, that live out of their cattle, and agriculture. Land is their most important wealth, their cattle comes right after that. The way land property works is that the Land belongs to the Clan. It is Clan Land. Clan land has to remain within the Clan. It cannot be sold, it cannot be given away, it belongs to the Clan, in opposition to the individual. Maasai society being patrilineal, inheritance goes from fathers to sons. The idea behind this is that a woman is always meant to be married. When she gets married, she will leave her Clan to join the Clan of her husband. Because of that, she cannot inherit any of her Clan’s wealth -especially not Land – otherwise it will go to another Clan. This is the main reason why women do not have rights. Because they are movable. Because they are like part of the cattle.
This is the sad reality of what many Tanzanian women have to face. This is the result of wanting to avoid ethnic conflicts. Women have to bear the cost of it. Women are always carrying the weight of the World.
Violence against women is commonplace. Female circumcision, albeit forbidden under statutory law, is still a normal cultural celebration. Women that lose their husband, lose everything.
However, the strength of women is shinning through the challenges we face. At every difficult step we take, we grow stronger, and keep walking.
Just a few days ago I met Immaculée. Immaculée survived the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago. She witnessed her entire family being butchered before her very eyes. She told us her story without blinking. Now she is living in Tanzania, working at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Living here and witnessing all this gives you perspective. I am grateful for what I have, but I also owe it back to great strong women who made it possible. This country is definitely not an example for women’s condition, but there is a better future. I met incredible Tanzanian women, strong, proud, brilliant, and fighting hard for change. It will take time, but it is possible. Impossible is not a woman’s word. Education is key.
African lesson n°6: Educate a boy and you will have a smart man. Educate a girl and you will have a bright Nation.