Tanzania is composed of more than 120 ethnic tribes, including the Maasai. Most of these tribes are governed by Customary Law. This refers to the traditions and customs of a community which dictate their social structures and norms.
According to such customs, Maasai society distinguishes strictly between male and female social roles. Women are seen as strictly home makers and subordinate to their male counterparts who are farmers and warriors.
As a result of this position and role in society, child marriage, lack of education and domestic violence are sadly commonplace for Maasai women and girls. In addition, being so remote and without knowledge of their rights means these practices are generally accepted as a way of life.
A few weeks ago, Inherit Your Rights traveled to the interior community of Engaremaibor in Longido to conduct legal rights training for a group of 30 Maasai women. Here, our aim was to provide a forum for women to come together and learn about their rights, as well as a chance to ask questions and share experiences. Due to the prevalence of customary law and traditional structures in remote communities such as these, at Inherit Your Rights we often have to start from scratch when providing legal rights training. This means firstly building awareness of what human rights are and why they are important, before women can begin to question the normality of things like lack of education for girls or domestic abuse.
However, a number of women in Engaremaibor community proved to be unusual exceptions and were already being proactive about standing up for their rights and looking out for the best interest of their families.
One of the most important pieces of information Inherit Your Rights shares with the women we work with, is the channels they can use to exercise their rights. This includes being able lodge claims or raise issues with the Village and Ward offices. These offices follow Customary Law but are also bound by Statutory Law, created from the Tanzanian Constitution, which actively protects women’s rights. These offices are located in each region and are available for women to put forward issues they are experiencing and help find resolutions.
In interior communities, access to these offices can sometimes be difficult. That’s why having a sound understanding of their rights and why they should be upheld is crucial as it instills in women the confidence and motivation to take action. It also forges a support group of women who can help them stand up and be heard.
In this community, it was inspiring to hear the stories of women who were already utilising these channels and those that were ready and prepared to learn how. The vast majority of
the women in attendance had been married off at young ages to men old enough to be their grandfathers. Many had already been widowed, and you could sense their courage and determination not to let this happen to the next generation.
One women in attendance told of how her husband regularly drank and beat her, and refused to send her children to school. Her husband never received an education and wanted their children to help tend to the cattle. This woman, however, was determined her children receive an education. She took the matter to the Village and Ward Offices. As the Offices’ recognise Statutory Law which decrees children of the age of seven must be enrolled in school, it was ruled that they be educated. This could have been a dangerous move for the woman and potentially led to retribution from her husband. However, remarkably, she shared that after this her husband allowed the children to attend school and furthermore stopped beating her.
Sadly this is a fairly unique story but illustrates the importance of building awareness of human and legal rights for men, women and children at every level of society. By working with community elders and men, we can show why it is important to empower women and the benefits it brings to an entire community – including the impact the participation of women and girls has in accelerating sustainable development and economic growth. For girls, such training and education instills strength and confidence from a young age and for boys, contributes to changing the behaviours and perceptions of the next generation.
Stories of women who have been able to successfully advocate for their rights give great amounts of hope and inspiration that change is possible, even in remote communities.
This inspired another women to come forward and share her story.
After the death of her husband, this woman was being targeting by the son of her husband’s first wife. As per Customary Law, the eldest son had become the executor of his father’s estate but did not want provide the second wife any support. In an attempt to scare her aware, the son burned down her house. Just as she started rebuilding, he burned down the house again. She is now building her home for the third time and lives in fear he will return to do the same.
This woman came to the session at a loss of what to do about her situation and unaware of any avenues she could pursue to protect herself. However, hearing the stories of fellow community members has given her the knowledge of how to report issues such as this and the courage to be proactive. Inherit Your Rights will also provide advice for her to pursue the matter further.
Often when women attempt to exercise their rights in traditional communities they can be met with resistance or retribution, but these women have shown that with courage and determination anything is possible. Having a forum and safe space like this allows for the exchange of knowledge and sharing of experiences that otherwise would not be spoken about. After hearing these stories, the women who didn’t know where to turn walked away with the knowledge, confidence and inspiration to do something to ensure their rights are respected, and know that they are not alone.
Although changing perceptions in remote communities bound by custom and tradition can be a long and slow process, uniting women together and empowering them through education is a positive first step and furthermore, a powerful and pivotal force for change.