This week marks International Day for Rural Women, as well as World Food Day. Both are cause for exceptional celebration in Tanzania this year. Just under two weeks ago, after a very long and at times contentious process, the Tanzanian Parliament finally passed a new draft constitution providing women with the same rights as men to own and use land. If the constitution is equally supported by an upcoming people’s referendum, the lives of countless women and their children could soon be forever transformed, benefitting development efforts in Tanzania overall by spurring greater economic and food security.
Tanzania’s fertile land is largely dominated by small hold farmers and livestock-rearing pastoralists, and women carry out much of the work tilling the soil and tending to cattle. According to a recent Oxfam report, eighty percent of women in Tanzania are from rural areas. But here’s the catch: less than five percent of them actually own the land on which they live and work. This is in largely due to patriarchal customary laws that are still observed by many communities in rural Tanzania – laws that are often very discriminatory towards women, especially when it comes to land tenure.
Even though national laws have been on the books for 15 years that give women the right to own land, they have often been ineffectual because those same national laws also cede power to customary laws, where they are observed, around land tenure. For example, according to customary law, when a woman’s husband dies the property and land they shared would traditionally be claimed by her husband’s brother or other close male relative, leaving her and her children vulnerable to eviction. The same goes for divorce. Sadly, we’ve seen cases like this far too often, leaving women’s and their children’s lives in upheaval.
One such case could have been that of Agatha Felix. I recently met the 46-year-old divorced farmer in Morogoro District, a lush, hilly agricultural region that grows an array of produce like maize, sugar cane, potatoes, yams, mangos, bananas and rice. If it hadn’t been for a civil society organization (CSO) called the Morogoro Paralegal Center, Agatha might have lost her land and her livelihood selling crops in local markets often frequented by buyers who travel the two hours from Dar es Salaam, the county’s economic capital, to buy produce.
“I am very happy and I have peace now because I own my own land. I have a customary right of occupancy document which has my name on it,” Agatha proudly boasted when we met. “The women of my village highly appreciated community sensitization on the importance of women’s land and property rights, which has resulted in the Village Council allowing women to own land the same as men.”
The Morogoro Paralegal Center is one of a handful of small CSOs in Tanzania that have been striving for years to help women own land through community awareness raising campaigns of national laws, and through legal assistance. The awareness raising campaigns in particular have been critical, not only in transforming the attitudes of women and their communities, but also in influencing the behavior and decision-making of those who hold the most power. It has made a world of difference for Agatha.
“Before the awareness campaign, women were not allowed to own or inherit land and property from their fathers or husbands. I remember when my parents passed away all girls and women were told ‘you are not allowed to inherit the land, it will be under your elder brother,” Agatha continued. “Now that I own my own land, I can make my own decisions and can now generate my own income and invest it how I like. This has improved mine and my families’ livelihood and security.”
Agatha provides us with a shining example of why the new Tanzanian Constitution is so valuable for women in Tanzania. But she has also shown us that if real, widespread change is to occur, it is vital that the government translate the constitution into the right policies – and into a comprehensive strategy to enact those policies on the ground in an affordable, accessible and accountable manner. And as Agatha so aptly pointed out, awareness-raising is invaluable to bringing about real change. A well-funded national campaign sensitizing women, men, traditional leaders, and local government and land officials, is therefore an essential part of that equation.
Perhaps above all, Agatha’s transformation illustrates just how beneficial land ownership for women can be – not only as a basic right, but also as a stimulant for income generation that helps whole families prosper. With women’s land ownership comes healthier, better fed, and better educated children because their single, divorced or widowed mothers will be able to support them. And in the end, like any country, Tanzania is a sum of its parts.
Faudhia Yassin is an advocate with the Women’s Legal Aid Center, one of five Tanzanian civil society organizations that founded the Mama Ardhi Alliance in 2013 to promote women’s land rights. Along with other campaigners and rights coalitions, Mama Ardhi’s efforts were instrumental in securing language protecting women’s land rights in the new constitution. The other members of Mama Ardhi – which means ‘Mother Earth’ in Swahili – are the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, Envirocare, the Pastoral Women’s Council and Ujamaa Community Resource Team.