Protecting land and empowering women in Tanzania

Article Date

22 December 2014

Article Author

Jennifer Abrahamson

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Two dozen Maasai women gathered on the dusty ground, preferring the shade of an acacia tree as a meeting space to the shelter of an adjacent church. Although varied in age and circumstance (pouches containing basic cell phones dangled – along with strands of beads – from the necks of those women are slightly better off), they all shared the traditional fashion of shaved heads, elaborately pierced ears and bright body wraps. They had another critical quality in common: the desire to secure their rights – including land rights – for themselves, and importantly, for their sons and daughters alike.

The Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT), an Arusha-based rights group, is striving to help them do just that.

For over 15 years, UCRT has been working to empower marginalized people – largely, the Maasai people – in the rangelands of northern Tanzania to secure the rights to their natural resources and land in order to improve their livelihoods and conserve their resources. The Maasai, traditionally pastoralists whose livelihoods rely on access to their ancestral land to graze cattle, have faced, and continue to face, numerous threats including mass eviction from their land to make way for a foreign-owned luxury hunting reserve, reported by global media in November.

Maasai women face additional challenges to realizing their land and other rights. To tackle the problem, UCRT started training groups for women, known as Women’s Rights and Leadership Forums, across northern Tanzania. The women sitting before me under the acacia tree were members of one such forum in the village of Loiborsiret in Simanjiro District, and for many of them, the experience had transformed the way they perceived themselves.

“Our eyes have been opened,” a widow named Paulina said, the other women silently nodding as she spoke. “We women have lots of challenges and before UCRT, we never knew that women also have the right to own land, not just men.”

The lessons learned in the forum also empowered many of its members to take matters into their own hands when they discovered a corrupt village leader had sold off part of Loiborsiret’s communal land and pocketed the proceeds. Initial complaints led to an attack by local security forces and, angered by the continued injustice, several women last August pooled their limited resources and hired two vehicles to take them to the regional capital to ask the regional commissioner – the governor – to intervene. The case made national headlines, the regional commissioner eventually visited Loiborsiret after initial foot-dragging, and the village leader was finally removed from his post.

The right to own, inherit and securely access land is fundamental to rural populations’ survival across the developing world. Women in particular face persistent challenges to enjoying this right, especially in places like Tanzania and neighboring Uganda. To address these challenges, ICRW recently helped launch two women’s land rights advocacy coalitions, the In Her Name coalition in Uganda, and the Mama Ardhi Alliance – which roughly means ‘Mother Land’ In Swahili – in Tanzania.  Mama Ardhi, comprised of UCRT and four other Tanzanian land and women’s rights groups, played an instrumental role in securing language in the national constitution that for the first time – if supported in an upcoming plebiscite – will provide women with the same rights to own land as men.

Despite this triumph, enormous challenges confronting women’s land rights will most certainly remain. Customary practices in places like Loiborsiret have not traditionally recognized women as land or property owners, and customary practices have often trumped national law on the ground. Although efforts like those led by UCRT are making inroads, real change will most certainly come slow at the local level without comprehensive awareness raising campaigns – even if the constitution is promulgated and national laws are changed.

An essential part of the UCRT training involves raising women’s awareness of the importance of obtaining documentation – in her name, not just in her husband’s name as is the norm – proving that the parcel of land on which they live belongs to them. Although not legally binding in the eyes of national law, the Maasai administer their own documentation process, providing letters to individuals stating that they are the rightful owners of a given piece of communal land.

As a result of the forum, women are increasingly requesting their own letters so they can protect themselves, their children and their future wellbeing. Several women told me that they want to ensure that both their sons and daughters will have land to graze and cultivate when they grow up – no matter what decisions their father might make. This is especially critical in Maasai culture as polygamy is still extremely common.

“I started thinking, my husband has five wives, what will happen if he decided to just give all the land away to one of the wives? What would happen to my children?” a mother of six  named Esther explained as to why she took strides to obtain a letter from the village council. “Shortly after, a man whose farm is bordering my own claimed that part of it was his. I went to the local land tribunal which ruled that the land was mine.”

Another woman of about 50 – most women didn’t know their age – has been left in a state of limbo after separating from her husband. Totally dependent on him, she and her seven children had no choice but to leave their boma, or homestead, and are now relying on handouts from her siblings. She has applied for a letter for a parcel of land to call her own, but has not yet received a response from the village council.

All in all, the story of Loiborsiret is a promising one. Change is possible, as is evident by the recent issuance of letters of land ownership to a handful of Maasai women in Loiborsiret and in surrounding villages. This is an enormous accomplishment in the face of age-old tradition that dates back well beyond modern memory. And as the Maasai’s livelihoods are increasingly threatened by encroaching outside interests, be they luxury hunting reserves or otherwise, it is also increasingly critical that women are empowered to protect themselves and their communities.

“Before the forum, Maasai women didn’t have any rights. But now we know,” Esther said.  “And the men also know that if they violate them even a little bit, we won’t stand for it. Women will now stand till the very end to ensure that we have the same rights.”