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Protecting the rights of older women in Tanzania

Source: HelpAge International - UK - Thu, 14 Jul 2011 07:29 PM
Author: Jeff Williams/HelpAge International 2011
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

HelpAge International’s programmes in Sukumaland, Tanzania focus on community interventions to prevent witchcraft allegations and violent attacks against older women. Wande Gibe, 90 years I have lived in this village most of my life. I had eleven children but only 1 remains. Those that died left many grandchildren behind. To be honest I never counted how many I cared for. Most have grown up now and have left home. At one stage I farmed the land alone while caring for 4 grandchildren. I did this all by myself but now I am dependent on others. Years ago, my husband divorced me but recently he has come back again. The land belongs to me – left to me a very long time ago by my parents, but, under the law I was not allowed to own the land I inherited, only to use it, and eventually my husband sold the land and kept the money. He is back but still does not support me. I depend on my grandson to fetch me water. Years ago, I heard of older women and knew some who were attacked, but not anymore. I get a lot of visitors to my house. People come and give me news and we talk about issues. I attended a community meeting recently about women’s rights and marriage law. We were told “If you marry and you have a kettle, and the man divorces you, you must claim the kettle, because you are not his labourer. If he beats you, come straight to us". The paralegals here support us older women. We are very happy, very safe. This new house built by the community has made me very happy. Nyamizi Bundala, 73 I have lived in this village since I was first married. By 1970, I had 9 children. I started a small business of making a local brew called Komoni after my husband passed away four years ago. I am a good person and people like me but few years back, my neighbour accused me of killing his child who died of a sickness. I received a threatening letter which said “You must leave this village and move fifteen villages away. If not the sungu-sungu will do something that you will never, ever forget”. The letter was also an open letter to the sungu-sungu. I’ve still got the letter. On reflection, I believe that a traditional healer pointed the finger at me but I don’t have proof. I took the letter to the primary court and my neighbour denied sending it. Some time later I was returning home at night. Suddenly, someone came running towards me – he struck me with a machete and chopped off my arm and slashed my head. It was dark but I recognised the person. People rushed me to hospital.. I was unconscious for over a day and in hospital for 3 weeks. I was sure I was going to die. While I was in hospital the police came and questioned the villagers including the man I suspect. When I recovered I was given a letter by the police to call me to the case. The first time, the judge didn’t turn and the second time I was told the case had already been heard and I had lost, but the police had never told me. I was very angry when I heard this and I went to the police. I was very angry towards them but came home very disappointed. A friend of my son said he would raise the case again and asked for my admission card. But the card was then lost. I believe he was bribed by the suspect to lose the admission card. Without the admission card I had no evidence and no case. All my efforts ended. I have never been back in court. There is no justice. I survive on my own ability. I didn’t get justice because I couldn’t pay for it. No-one takes action for those who are poor. But that was a few years ago. Things are changing now and changing fast. There are not so many threatening letters these days. There is awareness of legal rights now. But for women living alone it’s a bigger problem. And the government is not sure what to do. The government is not involved enough in these issues, though I can see other organisations (NGOs) care about this. Mbuke Bundala, early 60s I live here with several of my grandchildren. Their father is divorced so the children move between these two homes because they like being with me. Last year, I was told by somebody in this village that I was bewitching their mother. They came to my house and started to destroy it and injured my brother-in-law. I didn’t know who they were. They just ran away. Later I received threatening letters which said that I was a witch and ordered me to leave the village – they didn’t want to se me in this village again. If I didn’t go they would come and kill me. We went to the Wasalama* – the peace-makers. They promised they would investigate and find them but they were not able to. To this day I don’t know who they were. Why was I targeted? I think it’s because I am living alone. My husband died a long time ago. I think also it’s possibly jealousy of the happiness I have here with my grandchildren, and those people want to take that away. It’s difficult to know, but I have my suspicions, but I have no proof so will not say.. Since that event things are peaceful though I don’t know what people are thinking about me.The community ensure I’m safe at night – they send the sungu-sungu/ walamsala to guard my house. Every house has a warning whistle. If I blew it I know the community would come immediately. *The Sungu-Sungu or Wasalama are a group of men, given the role of guarding the community people and their property. They are given this responsibility by their communities and are often described as “local militia” in the past they often instigated the attacks if an older woman was accused of witchcraft. Due to government pressure the Sungu-Sungu have become more of a “community watch” group and in the project areas where HelpAge are working are instrumental in protecting older vulnerable women. Pius Mkina, Paralegal I have been a paralegal since 2005, and have covered the whole ward, which is 22 villages. I am also a community facilitator. There have been great changes over the last few years, and much greater awareness of older women’s rights. We have turned people’s attitudes around. We have community mobilization teams of young and old musicians, dancers, actors who perform songs and dramas promoting older peoples role in village life. One of the songs goes like this “killing our grandmothers causes so much misery, they are our poorest, they have so little, not even a goat…” Doto Beta, 80  I have six children and have lived in this village since I was married so I know everyone here. My husband and I work together on this land and grow corn. One year after this programme started, I received a threatening letter. A child had died in the community and the letter blamed it on five older women. It accused them of bewitching him, and named all of the women. We didn’t know who wrote the letter. We contacted the Sungu-Sungu* and they called a large meeting. During the meeting they pointed out that jealousy was the cause, not witchcraft . The Sungu-Sungu gave a strong warning to the community that if anything happened to us five women, they would find out who was responsible, and urged the entire community to protect us. Since then, all five of us have remained safe and happy. Why is it always older women that are pointed out? Because they think we are not useful in the community, they do not value us, they think we have no benefit. Older men are never pointed out, because no one believes older men use harmful medicines. *The Sungu-Sungu are a group of men, given the role of guarding the community people and their property. They are given this responsibility by their communities and are often described as “local militia” in the past they often instigated the attacks if an older woman was accused of witchcraft. Due to government pressure the Sungu-Sungu have become more of a “community watch” group and in the project areas where HelpAge are working are instrumental in protecting older vulnerable women. Many have change their names to Wasalama or 'peacekeepers'. Elias Manjila,Traditional Healer I was appointed a traditional healer by my ancestors in my dreams in 1986. I was 30 that time. Normally sick people come and explain their problem to me. I ask if they have a physical problem or something else. If they are, I prepare medicines for them. The most common problems are stomach problems. Some also come seeking good fortune. Some traditional healers are 'Wapiga Ramli' or 'witch pointers'. I used to do that too. People would come to me and would ask me to point out who was causing harm to them. They put pressure on us to name someone. It caused a lot of conflict and quarrelling. Sometimes, older women would be attacked. Since I became involved in this project, I do not name a person. I give some relief medicine or if they have an illness I refer them to the hospital. We no longer name names, and the customer goes home and eventually gets better. A woman came to me recently with her child who was ill. The family believed the child was bewitched. I told her the child was anaemic. I knew this because I took a pinprick of blood and saw the blood was very pale. They took her to the hospital and they confirmed she was anaemic. The child received medical help and no older woman was blamed. Nziku Kulwa I am not sure of my age but I was born long before there were motorcars around here. I was born near this village. I had two children, but only one is here now. My daughter looks after me. Soon after my husband died, two years ago, I received threatening letters. I was sent three threatening letters. The letters came at night, in the dark. They put them on the wall outside the house so that no-one knows who sent them. I was so scared. I moved away to another local village. But while I was away the village committee discussed my problem and came to bring me back. When people who I’d known all my life came to me and asked me to come home, I was very happy to return. I’ve been back a year now and have had no trouble. They have kept me safe since and I’m very grateful. This house was built by them and shows that they care for me. My new house is very different from the last. This one is bigger. I now feel I’m respected, because now people visit me again I’m happy here despite the challenges. Many people have the attitude that when a woman ages she becomes a witch. The mentality is that “old” means “witch”. I don’t understand that! I am old now and unable to do some things – how would I therefore just be suddenly able to become a witch! " Sule Gota, Sungu-Sungu commander The Sungu-Sungu are a group of men, given the role of guarding the community people and their property. They are given this responsibility by their communities and are often described as “local militia” in the past they often instigated the attacks if an older woman was accused of witchcraft. Due to government pressure the Sungu-Sungu have become more of a “community watch” group and in the project areas where HelpAge are working are instrumental in protecting older vulnerable women. Many have change their names to Wasalama or 'peacekeepers'. I am a member of the security committee in the Sungu-Sungu. The committee discuss issues of security and the conduct of wrong-doers in the community. The sungu-sungu is voluntary. We are also farmers. Every day and night we are on rotation on guard duty. If you came at midnight you would see some of us up protecting the village. We protect against robbery, violence, attacks. Because the government intervened and accused the Sungu-Sungu of brutality. We have changed the approach. Originally we were set up and registered as “witch-hunters” in this village. We have changed because we see protecting people is more important than harming people. I think our role is a good one now. I hear it’s the same in other villages, change has happened.   Hadija Ndizi I have been a traditional healer for the last 15 years. Even though I’m a traditional healer, this doesn’t protect me from being accused of witchcraft. I can’t control what people think of me. The accusations started in 2005 and I came home to find letters accusing me of being a witch. The Sungu-Sungu* gathered outside my home and wanted to hear my side of the story. They asked if I’d been in any conflict with anyone. I said no. They advised me to go to the police and gave me a letter from them to the police. I went to the police who asked me a few questions and said they would investigate. Nothing has happened till now. The Sungu-Sungu would come around and keep an eye on me and protect me. But then this (HelpAge) programme started in 2008, I opened up and started to discuss the issues of accusations with the wider community. I had been the only one accused in my village and been isolated from people, because it was publicly announced that I had been accused and threatened. Some didn’t believe it, some did. But then after the programme started people began to visit me again A lot of women here have red eyes, including me. My eyes were very red. People believed it is the sign of a witch. We never attended school, so we were working on these smoky stoves since we were young children, cooking, cooking morning to night. Now our eyes are clear. The smoky stoves have also blinded some women. Through the programme, 120 fuel-efficient stoves have been built in the village now. Things have improved for us women, we feel safe. We do not have much but are happy with what we do have. So things have improved for older women. We have better stoves, better houses. We feel safe. We still need better health services, and some older people have to travel long distances to collect water. The nearest public water pump is 10 k away so older people who cannot afford to drill boreholes rely on the community to get them water. We don’t have much, but we thank you for what we have". The Sungu-Sungu are a group of men, given the role of guarding the community people and their property. They are given this responsibility by their communities and are often described as “local militia” in the past they often instigated the attacks if an older woman was accused of witchcraft. Due to government pressure the Sungu-Sungu have become more of a “community watch” group and in the project areas where HelpAge are working are instrumental in protecting older vulnerable women. Many have change their names to Wasalama or 'peacekeepers'. Deyu Nduluma and her daughter Skolastica Leke I am not sure of my age but I was born shortly after the Germans were here (in the year 1914). I have grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren! We are very big families in this village, growing many crops such as groundnuts. We often invite our neighbours to help in the harvest. One such year, our entire crop was stolen. The following year we cultivated again. My husband was away one night and I was looking after one of my grandchildren who was just a baby. Suddenly some people arrived at the house. I shouted out “who are you?” but couldn’t see their faces. They attacked me and cut off both my arms. I ran to the next building where I had an older grandchild and then I fainted. I woke up the next day in the hospital. The police came while I was in hospital but they never found the culprits. My husband tried to investigate and even went to a traditional healer to find out. We never found out and never will. There is no benefit in looking for someone you don’t know. Only God knows. We heard stories of other older women being attacked in other villages. They are told they are witches but everyone knows it is because of envy of big harvests. After my husband died there was the discussion of who owned the land but my in-laws were happy for me to continue to live here and everyone understands that when I die the land goes to my children. The bricks for my new house came from the villagers who wanted to support me, and the rest of the materials came from HelpAge. I think the village realised I had nothing and could do very little. This village cares for older people, I can see that. I do not understand the mindset of people who would not. I don’t understand the motives.      

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