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Working for women's rights in Tanzania

04 Jun 2011

I'm Juliana BernardJuliana, Gender and Legal Coordinator for HelpAge International in Tanzania.

Over these regular blogs I'd like to give you a flavour of the work we do here in Sukumaland as we work towards improving older women's rights.

Women have no status

All women, including younger ones have a low status in Sukumaland. A woman can own and buy land but there is still difficulty in inheriting land.

If a woman inherits, there will be conflict. People don't believe that a woman can or should inherit land. Their families often prevent them from owning cattle, land or property.

Indeed women are married in exchange for cattle or money, thus becoming "property". Polygamy makes women more valueless as normally those abandoned are the older wives, replaced by the younger ones

Disparities worsen with age

Nziku said: Soon after my husband died, two years ago, I received threatening letters.

But gender disparities worsen with age. If a man dies, his wife is instantly very vulnerable. She can easily be abandoned. The sons take over, and even if the sons are supportive, other relatives are quick to come and take over the property.

So things have never been good for older women. But things have worsened as poverty, youth unemployment and HIV and AIDS have increased.

If older women had an income, like a pension, it would give them power and respect. They could pay for services, for medicine. They could manage their own health.

If you have enough for a cup of porridge, then you can stand and argue! If you see smoke from their chimney, they can afford fuel, they have status. No smoke is a sign of weakness.

Negative attitudes mean nothing is done about elder abuse

Last week the team attended a large celebration as part of National annual Albino meeting. In recent years there were many albino killings and attacks on albino children and adults accused of witchcraft.

The Tanzanian Government came out strongly in support of albino children, saying it was "not fair" to treat children in this way.  

This is of course true but negative attitudes towards women and older women means the same outrage wasn't applied to the death of hundreds of older women.

The same issues cause all these deaths, but now albino deaths are decreasing, whereas deaths of older women are increasing - Except in the areas where HelpAge and its partners work.

We are now working together with the albino associations. There is now an albino member of parliament and she is working with HelpAge to campaign for a pension for older people...  

Empowering older people

The project has also empowered older people to demand their rights, for example health entitlements. It very encouraging that they have the desire and confidence to demand their rights.

Traditional healers were the people making the accusations against older women. The government tried to address the issue by re-registering all traditional healers, who vowed as a result not to "point out" witches.

There are two types of traditional healing; one for healing, and then other known as "thosthalling" or tooth telling - identifying or pointing the finger at a witch.

Changing attitudes

The traditional healer would argue "the community wants us to do this. The customer demands I identify who is to blame". Very often the traditional healer will pick someone vulnerable who can't complain or take action. In other words, an older woman.

HelpAge started working with traditional healers training them in basic healthcare, helping them to identify sanitation needs in the community.

By improving his skills the traditional healer can refer patients or customers to health centres. We always promoted the message "don't associate sickness with a person, associate a sickness with a medicine".

Read more about our work on older people's rights

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Author profile

Juliana Bernard
Country: Tanzania
Job title: Gender and Legal Coordinator

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.