A Post by Guest Writer Jess Shorland
I have just returned from visiting Tanzania. I was there from July 5th through July 12th. On this, my second trip to Karagwe, Tanzania, I had only one week to learn as much as I possibly could about local conflict – the reasons behind it, who was often involved, and possible solutions.
Thanks mostly to Juma Masisi, Director of WOMEDA (the Women’s Emancipation and Development Agency), I managed to talk with over thirty women, all of whom shared their amazing stories with me. The women’s experiences all demonstrated the seemingly archaic gender gap that remains not only in the town of Karagwe, but in many villages across the globe.
So I began my work to speak with these women connected to WOMEDA in this small rural village in Tanzania.
In front of a clay brick house, kneeling on mats woven by the calloused hands of the women sitting opposite me, I began with my own story of how my rights had been violated when I was 17 years old.
I had hopes that being open and candid with the women would bridge some of the cultural gaps and language barriers that I thought could prevent the comfort that fosters honesty. With repetitive “Poles” (which means sorry in Swahili) as Juma translated, the women grew more serious. After I explained my experiences and how they influenced my interest in gender inequality, I asked them if they would share their stories with me. One by one, the women elaborated on their struggles.
The Women’s Stories
Zainabu, 28, has a family of eight children, three wives and one husband. When she married her husband, she had no idea that he would eventually take two other wives, and that one of those wives would live with them in the house that she built. “I thought he would at least ask me, or even tell me, but it was very abrupt,” she said. She explained expressionlessly that she still loves him, but would have never married him had she known that this was his intention.
She finds it painful and difficult to share her husband and no longer wishes to have sex with him. But if she refuses, she faces a high risk of being beaten or kicked out of her house. And she fears leaving him because her husband will keep her children, who are a source of labor and potential income (especially female children because of the dowry system still in place). Looking down at her clasped hands, she said that she could never bear to leave her children.
What she did not know is that under Tanzanian law, children younger than seven are usually left in the mother’s custody, and children older than seven are given the right to make the decision themselves. Because of the lack of information and awareness of these laws, Zainabu thought that she had no other options. For her, it was either deal with it or leave her children. She also has the right to legally object to the second wife staying in her house and could take action to secure her property rights. She made eye contact with Juma as he explained, and inquired further of how she could do this.
Zainabu is but one example of a woman who feels badly about her relationship and the way she is treated, but who does not know that there are legal institutions that can emancipate her from these human rights violations.
The cognitive dissonance created by the feeling that what’s happening to her is wrong and believing that she has no other options creates an internal conflict with which she continuously struggles.
But herein arises another obstacle: in order to take legal action, you have to first get to the court. And you have to have enough funds to carry on with the proceedings.
Take, for instance, the case of a young woman who was raped in the village of Kjungangoma, Tanzania. It is about 30 kilometers from the nearest court.
This woman moved to Bukoba (bordering Lake Victoria) for her own safety. An elder woman in the village decided to seek justice and attempted to continue with legal proceedings. Transportation to town and back by taxi costs about 5,000 Tanzanian shillings, or about $2.00 USD. So the elderhad to walk the 30 kilometers to the court.
The Tanzanian government is supposed to pay these transportation expenses, as well as lawyer fees and court costs. Unfortunately, by the time paperwork is shuffled around, reimbursement is often pushed aside. So, unless a Tanzanian can afford the upfront costs of taking a case to court, both in time and money, he or she is still left without the proper means to seek justice.
This issue now leads me to the story of Methodia, a woman who was born at the time of World War I (she is about 90 years old now). When her only son passed away, she took in his many children. Later, her grandsons soon chased her out of her own house to take over her farm. She went to the magistrate to file a legal complaint, but her grandchildren had already bribed him. He told her there was nothing he could do.
Methodia now lives with her granddaughter, although this is culturally considered shameful. She wants to continue fighting for what is rightfully hers, but fears that if she reclaims the house, her grandsons will kill her in just a matter of months. In broken Swahili while looking down at her feet, she quietly said, “I may be old, but I still matter.”
This issue of corruption runs rampant in many developing countries, but especially in places where the legal system is not closely monitored. Marginalized women seeking their legal rights face an enormous risk of being stopped in their tracks by this very obstacle. The legal process cannot work in places wheremoney becomes more important than justice because basic human needs are not met
Abusing women’s property rights has been a major issue in many of the cases I heard. There is Gertrude, whose husband sold their profitable farm and house to be with another woman, leaving her with literally nothing. And there is Benidette, whose husband left her and took the doors, windows and tin roofing with him. Or how about Zamda, Pascazia and Zainabu who are forced to live with their husbands’ other wives in the homes that they built.
If property rights can be restored and protected, marginalized people will have a sense of ownership and space to better build their economic opportunities. The importance of property rights in terms of conflict resolution and development cannot be stressed enough.
I wanted to get to more sensitive topics with these women. I felt uneasy at first. I knew I had to just dive in and hope that they would share their very private lives with me.
One of the most powerful and insightful moments during my trip happened at the end of a discussion with 25 women. I asked them, “How many of you have sex with your husband?” As Juma translated, the women were obviously caught off guard. I asked again. This time, seven women raised their hands.
“How many of you don’t have sex?” – Only three hands raised, with a little laughter in the background.
“How many of you want and enjoy having sex?”
Silence fell upon that room, the only sound coming from the tarp that covered it. All the women were quiet, and every hand was down.
The explanations that followed told of husbands coming home drunk and abruptly climbing on top of their wives, forcing them to have sex. Another explained that she felt badly to share her husband with one, two and even three other wives–or any number of unidentified mistresses for that matter. Marital rape was obviously present. Women feared that if they tried to stop their husbands, they would be kicked out or beaten.
The Youth’s Stories
I looked to the youth next, hoping for a new informed generation that could show a ray of hope for the future of human rights. I spoke with two groups of secondary school students, ranging in age from 15-22 years. At Ruminyika Secondary, about fifty students began talking with me, and after some time of asking clichéd, obvious questions, they began to reveal their own curiosities. Their questions were inquisitive, touched with a brutal honesty that only increased my respect and appreciation for them.
The discussion was intense as we talked about everything from birth control pills to female genital mutilation to relationship advice. I turned the conversation toward gender roles and asked if the boys ever hit their girlfriends. The boys all laughed and gave each other high fives. A spokesman for the boys explained that it was a common practice to “show her that you love her,” especially if she shows interest in another man. “You have to keep your girl, so you hit her,” the boy said. The girls remained silent, which made understanding their emotions difficult. I could only sit in awe of what I was hearing from such young boys. It was a reminder that children imitate their surroundings, and that many of these teenagers were preparing to lead the same life as previous generations, breeding more of the same gender inequalities. At that moment, I felt helpless–that there was nothing I could do.
Juma and I explained to the group that under Tanzanian law, it is illegal to physically harm someone. Then, a boy shared a disturbing story of rape. He told of his experience of “almost rape” – stopped only by an unexpected car horn that gave the girl time to get away. “I know it is illegal, but I wanted to do it for the sake of doing it. I wanted to accomplish my mission,” he said, almost proudly. Laughter roared from the crowd of about 100 students accompanied by my complete and utter bewilderment. Can universal human rights actually exist in a world of such cycles of violence?
The Future Potential
In the midst of these horrifying abuses of human rights that taint the youth, I found cases that reaffirmed my hope for inherent justice for the equality of all human lives. Take the example of Julianna. After her husband died in 1989 she started her own business, put all four of her children through school and now has her own house and small farm. She has no doubt faced many hardships. She is still not able to access all the opportunities she deserves, but proudly she stated, “No one can mess with my rights now.”
And then there is Godsen, who after my discussion at a secondary school, stood up in front of his classmates and sang a poem he had written about eliminating HIV and AIDS. When his classmates stood up and threw their hands in the air filling the half-finished hall with praising cheer, I remembered that these inequalities in basic human rights are not inevitable. These inequalities have been created by man and can be eliminated by man. Progress is no doubt being made, but much more change is needed.
As Juma and I drove away from the secondary schools on my last day in Karagwe, I noticed a beautiful river at the bottom of a lush valley, overshadowed only by steep hills. I commented to Juma how breathtaking the scenery was, to which he replied, “That is the river that borders Rwanda. In 1994, thousands of Rwandan bodies floated down that river.”
And so, in a new age of globalization, a society teeters between vestiges of past ideals and practices and the crest of social and economic development. Karagwe is filled with amazing people doing amazing things and the amount of opportunity to innovate in the face of crisis seems unlimited. At the same time, the information and social gender gap in this region breeds local conflicts that can, if no action is taken, quickly escalate to a national and even international scale. We must bridge that bloody river, for it is much too easy and foreseeable to resort to violence if economic development, access to information and legal resources are not invested in. We cannot afford to forget that above all, we are one human race, and when working together toward a shared goal, our capabilities are immeasurable.