Tanzanian women’s struggles



Land, labour and livelihoods were the themes of the 2011 Gender Festival in the East African nation of Tanzania. Organized by the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP), the Festival brought together about 4000 predominantly grassroots women’s rights and gender equality advocates over four days.

By Kathambi Kinoti

The Gender Festival was founded by TGNP in 2001 as a space for Tanzanian women’s rights advocates to learn, network and strategize for collective action. It is held every two years and past themes have included land ownership rights, poverty eradication, structural frameworks that foster inequality and critiquing the capitalist economic model.

In her keynote address at the 2011 Festival, Prof. Dzodzi Tsikata, Head of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA) at the University of Ghana, drew attention to the intricate and gendered links between land, labour, livelihoods:

“The importance of land and labour rights for … livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa is on account of the predominantly agrarian nature of livelihood activities, which is the result of the failure of agrarian transformation in much of Africa… [T]he low technological base of agriculture makes labour a critical factor…[B]eyond agriculture, land has a wide array of uses in the organisation of livelihoods (for housing, for business premises and as a source of labour, technologies and inputs; fuel, medicinal plants, naturally growing resources such as Shea, fruit etc which are harvested for sale). As well, land is the basis of social and political power, and therefore at the heart of gender inequalities in the control of resources.»


Dispossession and displacement was a dominant theme at the Gender Festival. Throughout Tanzania, women’s rights activists report widespread unfair acquisition of land, mainly by foreign investors, such as the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and European and Asian corporations such as Bioshape and Sun Biofuel, frequently without the informed consent of local populations, and with the complicity of the Tanzanian government. Land is acquired for the purposes of growing food crops for the home markets of these foreign governments or corporations; to grow biofuel crops to supplement and potentially replace fossil fuels as a key source of energy in the European Union; to extract minerals and in some cases, simply to acquire land for tourism interests. Land grabs have emerged as a prominent and urgent challenge facing Tanzanians, with their rights being subordinated to the interests of foreign governments and corporations who are acquiring land to ensure food, energy or economic security.

For instance, women from the pastoralist Maasai community from Loliondo in north-eastern Tanzania who attended the Festival recounted the events of 2009, when government forces evicted their community from their land and burnt their houses.  During the operation the residents were beaten, women were raped and over 3000 people were left homeless. This was done to clear the area for a company from the UAE who had acquired the land as a hunting reserve for tourists.

Elsewhere in the country land has been acquired for the cultivation of food and biofuel crops and for the extraction of minerals.  In Shinyanga province, land was appropriated for a large-scale mining operation and a piped water scheme has been developed to only benefit the mining project. The pipeline brings water from Mwanza, a town on Lake Victoria to Shinyanga.  While the local populations who live along the route of the pipeline have no access to that water and women have to walk many kilometres daily to fetch water and only have limited access to water from rivers and streams. A similar situation occurred in the Hanang area where land was acquired to grow onions for export, where an irrigation scheme was developed and yet local women still have to walk long distances in search of water for household use.

Women’s rights activists at the Gender Festival highlighted that there are numerous situations where the Tanzanian government has allowed foreign investors to acquire land and other natural resources at the expense of its own citizens.

Livelihoods challenges

Over the past decade Tanzania’s economic growth rates have been relatively high, but this growth has not translated into better livelihoods for the majority of women

There is little protection of the labour rights of poor people and, as Tsikata stated, those whose most important resource is their labour are in a crisis because it does not bring sufficient returns to enable them have decent livelihoods and yet their labour may be all they have to offer. There is also the possibility that they may be made redundant by technology and ‘superior’ education or qualifications; or that they become victims of failed business models.  For instance, a failed biofuel project started by a British company in Tanzania’s Kisarawe District, which had acquired one quarter of a village’s land, left hundreds jobless and landless with nowhere to turn to.

Tanzanian women – like women the world over – are involved in immensely labour-intensive activities: bearing and rearing children, cooking, cleaning, caring for the sick and elderly, farming, selling farm produce, and so on, but this work is not adequately valued in economic terms

In “Food Sovereignty: Exploring debates on development alternatives and women’s rights,” Pamela Caro writes:

“Feminists and researchers of gender relationships assert that a patriarchal ideology is at the centre of capitalist trade and export trends, which aim to continuously increase production in search of greater profits, under the assumption that economic, productive and reproductive systems are not autonomous.”

This sentiment was affirmed over and over at the Gender Festival. Women spend hours fetching firewood and water for household use, caring for immediate and extended family members, and are expected to participate in the free-market where their labour is commodified without regard to their non-market reproductive labour. Women‘s productive and reproductive energy is a mainstay of the capitalist economy. Yet it remains unacknowledged and unrewarded, and even worse, it often deprives women of the fruits of their extensive labour.

Exploring solutions to precarious situations

The Gender Festival was a space for thousands of women and women’s rights advocates to explore solutions to the socio-economic struggles they face everyday: poverty, poor socio-economic status, land grabs and disenfranchisement.

Tsikata says: “Increasingly, popular struggles [in Africa] are being led by NGOs, and mass mobilization has been replaced by policy advocacy fragmented in single issues.” The Gender Festival, on the other hand, represents a powerful mobilization of grassroots women from all the regions of Tanzania and a potentially powerful force for change.

Maasai women from Loliondo are at the forefront of their communities in challenging their eviction from their homes. Representatives of the community at the Gender Festival reaffirmed their commitment to resisting the loss of their land, property and livelihoods to foreign investment. They have vowed not to leave Loliondo; where they were born, raised and have borne their children.  Their shared experiences can provide learning for other communities affected by land grabs and displacement.

At the Festival women from Nronga village also shared their experiences of taking control of their livelihoods, by starting a women-only dairy cooperative 24 years ago.  When an investor tried to take control of water resources in the area, the women resisted and formed a dairy cooperative and have now generated enough income to build a secondary school and have achieved 100% primary school enrolment. They have challenged the traditional saying “The man owns the cow, while the woman owns the milk.” Now, they own all the proceeds from dairy farming and are putting them to use in developing their community.

Women at the Festival also resolved to get involved more powerfully in the upcoming Tanzanian constitutional reform process, lessons having been gleaned from neighbouring Kenyan women’s steadfastness and solidarity to secure significant gains for women’s rights in the 2010 constitution and land policies.

The Gender Festival is a unique space for grassroots women in Tanzania to share experiences and strategies, not only from within the country, but also regional and international movements. This year provided yet another opportunity for participants to define, share and strategize about their continuing struggles over land, labour and livelihoods.

Land, labour and livelihoods: Tanzanian women’s struggles / Friday Files / News & Analysis / Home – AWID.

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