IRINGA, Tanzania (WOMENSENEWS)—Rozalia Msaudzi, 68, quietly explains what her life is like in her small village, near Iringa, in the southern highlands of Tanzania. She maintains a collected expression as she relates the hardship of maize farming, the death of her husband in 1996 and the number of children who are still alive.
But her voice starts to rise and she gestures emphatically when one subject comes up: the rights of women in this overwhelmingly agricultural country to own the small plots of land that they farm.
“Women should be given the right to own the land because many women around this village are being oppressed by their husbands,” Msaudzi says emphatically, through a Swahili translator, as we sit on the low, foam pads that serve as her sofa in this modest, mud-brick home. “What they get from their farm, they just use the money for their own and not for the whole family.”
Of the five acres of land that Msaudzi’s husband left when he died, she now has access to one acre, where she grows maize. Title to the other four acres has passed to one of her five living children.
As the country now works to rewrite its constitution, strengthening women’s land rights is a top priority for feminist groups, which have been lobbying a 30-member Constitutional Review Commission expected to issue a final report shortly, with a referendum before the next election.
Women’s right to own land in this east African country became national policy in the mid-1990s and then was enacted in 1999, when the Land Act and the Village Land Act were passed. But customary laws —which usually stipulate that land be passed down through the male line—still hold sway through caveats in national legislation that give them precedence.
“We have laws which are very contradictory,” said Mary Rusimbi, executive director of Women Fund Tanzania, in a phone interview from Dar es Salaam.
Customary Laws Superior
Indeed, the Village Land Act gave women equal rights and access to land as men, for example, stating married couple should be joint owners of any land. In order to take out a mortgage or sell land owned by a married couple, both spouses need to give consent. The legislation also gave women inheritance rights. However, the legislation also allowed “customary law” or religious law to take precedence.
In some cases, customary law expects widows to return to their parents’ family, losing all rights and access to the land they have worked. In other cases they may be granted access to the family land only until any children reach adulthood.
In the vast majority of cases, Rusimbi says, these customary laws are applied, even if they discriminate against women.
Activists hope that restating women’s land rights in the constitution, without caveats about customary law, and setting minimum standards for inheritance by spouses could help solve the problem.
Three women from Iringa, Tanzania, get an agricultural lesson.
Credit: Jess McCabe
“Women as widows and daughters need an independent right to inherit the share of their deceased husband or father’s property, so they can be able to freely lead peaceful lives and look after their children,” argues the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, a group of lawyers and paralegals who often represent women in property disputes, in a position paper on the new constitution.
The paper cites cases during property disputes of sexual harassment, property grabbing, women being prevented from remarrying and infringement of widows’ privacy and dignity, as their choice to remarry is discussed among their deceased husbands’ relatives. Interviews with orphans living around Lake Victoria found 45 percent living alone on property left by deceased parents, and linked unfair inheritance practices to children ending up homeless and young girls getting involved in prostitution.
Majority of Farmers
Women carry out 60 percent of agricultural labor in the country, according to government estimates. But women without title to their own land may struggle to take out loans, according to a report by Tanzania Country Level Knowledge Network, which concluded: “The survival and sustenance of agriculture and rural development in Tanzania, as well as in many sub-Saharan Africa countries, rest squarely on the rural women.”
Tanzania‘s Agriculture Minister Christopher Chiza says the government is doing what it can to help female farmers. Speaking from behind a massive stack of official papers that tower in his in-tray, Chiza says: “What we’re trying to do is encourage women to access land, to access loans and as much as possible we are giving them opportunities.”
But when asked if he knows how much land is owned by women, the minister laughs. “No. That is a very difficult question for me. I wouldn’t know,” he exclaims, before turning to one of his staff to ask: “Do you know?” She does not.
“It might be a very difficult question,” he concedes, still amused. “There are women who own land for some reason, but in a family, for example, in my family, usually if there is land, that land belongs to Chiza. Chiza means myself and my wife. So if it belongs to me, there wouldn’t be any reason to say Mrs. Chiza would also own one hectare, unless we are divorced. If you are a family, we still own that jointly. But of course there are cases where women own land. But to answer your question I can’t tell you that so many hectares are owned by so many women.”
A reality television show called “Maisha Plus,” Tanzania’s version of “The Simple Life,” provides an unlikely alternate source of this information. In 2012, the TV show partnered with the charity Oxfam to run a competition for female farmers to spend two weeks living in its televised village and receive agricultural training.
From detailed application forms filled in by 4,505 female farmers from 18 regions, the charity extrapolated an unprecedented snapshot of life for women in rural Tanzania. Only 5 percent own land, for example. Forty-four percent farm on land owned by their husbands; 35 percent work on family-owned land. Nine percent of women rent a plot of land. Almost 2-in-3 of the women named denying women the right to land as the most abusive form of gender violence.
To understand why all this is so, one only has to speak to one of Msaudzi’s male neighbors.
Alfred Mofuga, at 63 years old, standing confidently in his yard, a pen tucked into his suit jacket, has four wives. With a shake of his head and a smile, he explains he is not in favor of women owning or inheriting plots of land. “It’s not good, for truth. It’s not good. When a man or husband owns the land, it entitles the whole [family to that] land.” He shakes his head.
Back in the agriculture minister’s office, Chiza is keen to stress his wife’s rights over their joint land. But then he describes what would happen if he died. “If I have land and if something happens to me, for example, my wife stays with the family,” he says. “We have our customary laws and regulations of making dividends to members of the family.”