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When I arrived in Dar Es Salaam the day before our workshop on coalition advocacy tactics was to begin, the gentleman who drove me to the hotel wanted to know why I was in Tanzania.
“For work,” I said.
“What is your work?”
“Women’s rights,” I replied, “land and property rights, in particular. There are several organizations here who are trying to make sure women can have their land and inherit property. I came to talk with them about working together to make sure the government hears them speak with one voice.”
The driver mulled that for a minute. “Change is a process,” he said. “But now the women are always talking about ‘rights, rights, rights,’ and can’t get any husbands. It’s too fast. The proper way is to have a conversation, to say what is it that needs to be abolished, what will be the impact, and then weigh both sides. Then you decide.” He looked at me.
“Change is a process,” he repeated.
In a way, this conversation encapsulates patriarchal attitudes that the organizations I had come to Tanzania to connect with are trying to change: Women are always talking about rights, rights, rights. They can’t get any husbands. In another, it outlines the exact theory of change under which the advocates are organizing. Change is a process. The proper way is to have a conversation.
Today in Tanzania, the law of the land forbids discrimination, promotes equality and specifically stipulates that women can own property. That’s due in grand part to the efforts of many of the organizations I heard from over the week, who came together more than a decade ago to push for more equitable provisions for women under theLand Act and Village Land Act of 1999. Among their victories were explicit language articulating women’s right to own property, a provision ensuring that spouses must be consulted before applying for a mortgage, and quotas for three out of seven representatives on local land dispute adjudication councils to be women.
So there are some strong legal standards to work with. But advocates are finding, some 14 years later, that in the villages where most women live, rights aren’t informed as much by the letter of the law as they are by the opinions and practices of local leaders, most of whom are men. That’s where the problem of gender—of women’s socially-constructed roles as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law and the like and powerful norms around duty, family and value—coalesce in a manner that regularly disenfranchises them and ascribes them as second-class citizens. Girls are pulled out of school earlier than boys to do chores or help the family earn an income. They’re married off young, expected to be good girls and then good and obedient wives. Girls inherit less, or not at all, and widows are left landless. Rights are not part of that picture. Best case, they’re simply unknown. Worst, they carry a negative association and women who push to assert them invite the ultimate curse: They can’t get any husbands.
Rule of law is a complicated proposition at the village level in Tanzania, where national statutes, local governance and customary law all bump up against one another, often in conflicting directions, and usually in a manner in which women’s rights don’t come out on top. Federal law often defers to the customary system—sharia law or tribal elders, for instance—where many women’s rights issues are concerned, such as marital, divorce and inheritance matters. That is particularly problematic when a widow is denied inheritance under customary law, or provided only half of what men do under Islamic law. Many of the organizations I spoke with provide legal aid services, and attest to the number of cases they see where widows have been disinherited, girls have been left landless, or wives are destitute following divorce because the local or customary body that was empowered to determine justice found not in their favor.
So what is to be done? Traditionally, we think of advocacy for change as the pounding of pavement at state capitals to lobby for a particular policy measure, or as grassroots demonstrations outside an Embassy or state house. Yet for most women—across the world, not just in Tanzania—interaction with the justice system entails not the petitioning of a parliamentarian or a fair day in court represented by a well-trained attorney arguing before an impartial judge, but rather an audience with a religious or traditional leader, a panel of community members, or if they are really lucky, a paralegal. So it stands to reason that even a good law, like the women’s property rights guarantee in Tanzania’s Land Act, may not be enough to change the game for the women whose rights it is intended to protect. In that case, advocating for change has to be directed toward changing the minds and practices of those stewards of justice who do interact with—and have power over—women in the villages. And in order to do that, as the driver stated, the proper way is to have a conversation.
The advocates I met last week are hence devising a new model of advocacy, a new approach geared toward raising awareness of women’s rights standards and pushing for change within the village, where women need them most. As legal aid providers, legal professional associations, pastoralist societies, environmental and conservation groups and women’s rights advocates, they are coming together to convene community conversations with local government officials, traditional leaders and women who are demanding their rights. They are spreading out through the country, village by village, starting a conversation not only about women’s “rights, rights, rights,” but also about how the protection of women’s property rights is in the interest of the entire community. Promoting women’s property rights improves economic and food security, increases women’s power in the household, and can decrease risk to violence and HIV.
The community dialogue approach is, as one might imagine, a much more time and resource-intensive process. But when done well, it has proved that tremendous and lasting change is possible. On the highly contentious issue of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), for instance, community advocates eradicated the practice in two districts of Ethiopia by utilizing community dialogues and other organizing techniques that involve local government, justice systems and traditional leaders. It took long conversations and years to move from awareness-raising to actual behavior change, but it happened.
The conversations Tanzanian advocates are convening are going to take time, but they couldn’t be more timely. The Government of Tanzania is currently reviewing its Constitution, sending delegates around the country to ascertain what amendments need to be made. Advocates are pushing for land to be a focus of the constitutional reform effort and encouraging women to join the dialogue in defense of their rights. Working together, I believe they can and will change the world.
For more information on organizations doing excellent work on women, land and property in Tanzania, visit:
Pastoral Women’s Council www.pastoralwomenscouncil.org
Ujamaa Community Resource Team http://www.ujamaa-crt.org/
Tanzania Women Lawyers Association http://www.tawla.or.tz/
Women’s Legal Aid Centre http://www.wlac.or.tz/