Violence against women both domestic and sexual and discrimination at work places, women’s multiple responsibilities and their poverty, are just a few of the glaring examples that are cited here and which African countries have ratified Human Rights Charters have failed to observe or have violated shamelessly.

Most national development plans relegate women to a secondary role though they comprise between 60 – 80 per cent of agricultural producers of both food and cash crops.

In addition, cultural and traditional beliefs have also been instrumental in placing women in subordinate positions and are not given due recognition, nor proper rewards for work done.

This has served to make women more invisible thus depriving them of their rights as recommended in Human rights Charters.

Also, women’s lack of control over the assets and resources they utilize means that they continue to be underdogs in the struggle for economic improvement.

Further more, there has been a marked emphasis on traditional practices which have pushed women into tedious work, and which has also subjected them to brutality by men.

Law and legislation

Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights says  every individual must be entitled to equal protection of the law.

Tanzania has inherited the English legal system though it works parallel to customary Law.  This has a negative impact on women’s inheritance rights and property ownership to name just two examples.

Since independence, we have been juggling with the two sets of law judicial and customary – which has to all intents and purposes been confusing to women.  Despite the ratification of International Conventions on Human rights by Tanzania, there are still many discriminatory aspects in the implementation of law and legislation in the country.

For example, civil codes in many instances have not been adequately reviewed for repealing those laws which are discriminatory to women and for determining on the basis of equality, the legal capacity of women, in particular in the laws pertaining to inheritance, divorce, alimony and custody.

Another negative aspect of customary law has been neglected in marriage where a woman is treated as property rather than a partner.  In many ethnic groups, a woman’s consent is not considered necessary and because of the bride wealth given to her parents is regarded as property that was bought.  There have been instances where a woman was inherited as a piece of goods by the husband’s male relatives when the husband died.

Laws concerning sexual violence stipulate that it is a criminal offence for any individual to inflict injury, to molest; assault; or use threatening language; against another individual (s) but most of the women do not have access to the legal process.

First of all, there is the question of legal literacy and lack of comprehension of awareness of the law.

Secondly, we have to take into account the fact that the dissemination of information to women’s groups has not been adequate and thirdly, we should bring into focus the Tanzanian woman’s triple burden producer and care taker of family which leaves her with little time to read a simpler primer to practice her reading skills, let alone law books, most probably in a foreign language.

And even those women who are aware of their rights, how many would have the courage or the means to appropriate a lawyer?  Even if they have those two components at their disposal, how sure are they that their efforts may not be thwarted even in a court of law where it is said that justice should prevail?

Those women who are raped or sexually harassed who had the courage to try and press charges had the belief that the law would not only protect them but would also bring the perpetrators to justice, were disappointed.  Instead of being treated as the victims, their private lives were stripped bare and the roles became reversed.  The criminals became the heroes while the victims became the villains.

This illustrates that though most aspects of the law may look good on paper, societal trend has been to treat women victims as fallen women who asked for it and therefore deserved what they got!

Magistrates, prosecutors, defense councilors, court clerks are all part of the treadmill of our society and to a great extent, are guilty of biased opinion against women in favour of men.  Here we can safely say that crimes like assault, battery, discrimination at workplaces, have been for generations so deeply entrenched in our cultural ethos, that they have come to be accepted as the norm.

This acceptance of oppressive practices as part of our cultural heritage has contributed largely to the violation of human rights vis-à-vis women and as long as these practices continue to be accepted as an integral part of our lives, women will continue to be oppressed and their human rights nothing but a sham.

Therefore, some statutory laws and some customary laws have got to be revised in order to accommodate the principle of human rights in relation to women.  In fact, the spirit of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against women) should be incorporated in the legislation).

Violence against women is a violation of human rights

Article 6 of the African charter on Human and Peoples Rights says; Every individual shall have the right to liberty and security of his person.

Also, the first Regular session of the UN Economic Social Council (ECONSOC), particularly urged UN member states to adopt, strengthen, and enforce legislation prohibiting violence against women in all its forms.  It recommended that a framework of an international instrument explicitly addressing the issue of violence against women be developed in consultation with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (UN).

However, despite these African and UN Charters, despite many legal provisions protecting them against abuse, women in Tanzania are victims of all forms of violence, an issue until recently, rarely discussed openly.

In the three districts of Dar es Salaam, it was learnt that six out of every ten women have experienced violence either in the form of threats, battery, insulting language, pushing and shoving from their partners/spouses.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, because some of those respondents, who had earlier admitted to having experienced violence at the hands of their partners/spouses, later came to retract their statements.  Some unofficial figures suggest that as many as nine out of ten women have experienced violence in their relationships with men.

Domestic violence:

What the law says: Section 66 of the Law of Marriage Act says it is an offence for a husband or wife to use violence against his/her spouse and using custom and tradition as the excuse, while Section 135 of the Penal Code Stipulates that Any person who uses violence against another person is liable to 14 years imprisonment.

In practice, often relatives, friends, neighbors and at times the police, turn a blind eye to domestic violence on the excuse that culturally, they have not right to interfere in marital/domestic disputes, unless the woman’s life is threatened.

Few Options

 Women stay in abusive relationships because they have few options available to them.  They are often economically dependent on their men since most assets are owned by the men and with no other means of support for themselves and their children, contributed largely to withholding information and evidence.  Neighbors, relatives, friends have often discouraged a woman from pressing charges against a violent husband on the note that it would reflect badly on her in the community.

Women are also not aware that there are stipulations within the law which protect them against battery, sexual harassment and other forms of abuse because culturally, women have been brought up to believe that they are inferior, therefore it must be their fault and that they must have provoked their partners into violence.

For generations, women have watched their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends being battered, and they grow up believing that it is a way of life and ought to be expected.  The cycle is repeated over and over until societal attitude towards violence against women has been to take it as the norm and not as a violation of a person’s human rights.

Women also fear social stigma if they take legal action against violence.  Families have been known to close ranks against a battered woman who wishes to press charges, and quite often these have included members of her own family.  “Think of the shame,” women are told.

r4eSince many Tanzanian families are extended, the offender is often the main breadwinner for the entire family including cousins, uncles, grandparents, aunts etc.  If he got imprisoned, the whole network of support would crumble to the extent that families would stop a woman from taking legal action and she would bow down to pressure rather than face possible ostracisation from her community.  Thus, most women remain silent and endure the abuse.

Most people in Tanzania would be reluctant to give evidence in a case of domestic violence.  This is brought on by cultural values which view a woman as the property of her man and which advocates the chastisement of women, even through physical force.  When called upon for help, people tend to shrug their shoulders and continue with whatever they were doing saying it s a man’s right to beat his wife.

By refusing to intervene in cases of domestic violence, by being reluctant to give evidence when called upon, society in general is party to the violence and in fact, condones the act.  Cases have been reported where a man is applauded for beating and chastising his wife.

Most women also don’t report cases of domestic violence to the police because they are ashamed and often explain the injuries they sustained during an attack by saying that they fell down or that they bumped against the door or furniture.

Wives are not the only group of battered women.  Woman battering includes brothers beating their adult sisters, male colleagues beating their female colleagues, etc.

Violence against women, both sexual and domestic is caused by the uneven power relationship between men and women.  As long as women continue to be viewed as inferior, as long as they continue to have low self esteem as long as the ownership of property and distribution of wealth remain in the hands of men without an equal share of those resources by women, men will continue to violate women s rights.

As long as men know they can get away with it and as long as women do not get their right to support from the state and from their communities, they will continue to be oppressed.

As long as the law is not put into effective force, as long as women are not given access to information about their legal rights as long as public awareness is not informed on the concept of human rights, the Human Rights Charters may as well not be in existence for women.

Sexual Violence

The law is quite explicit on matters of sexual violence.

The use of abusive language, groping, so called accidental touching of a woman s body are all grouped together under the section of sexual harassment together with rape and attempted rape.  Yet most people are not aware that insulting/abusive language against a woman is a crime.

Sexual harassment takes many forms and occurs everywhere – in the streets, in homes, in institutions of learning, in factories, hospitals, public transport, etc.

In its simplest definition, sexual harassment means unwanted sexual attention.

Very few people women included, are prepared to deal with the issue of violence personally, either by compounding it, or in terms of actively working against it, to be able to help women.  This is also because of the stigma attached to victims of sexual violence, whereby most women stay away from getting publicly involved in it as an issue.

Raising Awareness

As part of an initiative to raise women’s awareness on human rights and in a bid to confront the whole issue of violence against women, women ought to be informed that violence exists in many forms, i.e. Mental; physical; emotional; economic injustice and violence and that sexual abuse is among the worst forms of violence against women, together with battery.

Men violate women sexually because they feel they can get away with it while women put up with it because they think there is nothing they can do, especially since the stigma attached to a victim of sexual violence is so high.  There is another fear among gender rights activists– that of AIDS.  A victim, who gets sexually abused by an assailant with HIV, has the death sentence passed over her.  Yet few people have thought of AIDS in relation to sex crimes.

What has to be done?

A number of pressure groups especially civil society organizations have started activities in the last 15 years to raise public awareness on discriminatory practices and also to lobby the government to revise those laws which discriminate against women, for example the law of Marriage Act.  These groups, have come up with various programs which they feel can help women get their full rights as stipulated in Human Rights Charters.

Among the items on the agenda is a concerted effort to do research on discriminatory practices, violence being the main focus.  Workshops; seminars; publications; radio programs; folk theatre; are all part of that agenda.

Looking at the UN Declaration of human Rights (1948) we should call to mind Articles 3 and 5 which say everyone has the right to life; liberty and security of person; and no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, respectively.

The UN major goals of equality!  Development and peace cannot be realized without Tanzanian women playing increasingly active roles in society.  There is a need for attitudinal changes, and for women to be given their due recognition because these can be no sustainable development in the country without the active participation of women.

Towards that end

  • Steps should be taken to ensure that women get a fair chance to get educational opportunities and that education helps them to secure employment that would increase their earning capacity.
  • Structures responsible for the administration of the law are often not comprehensible to women where the procedure can be complicated.  Therefore, the law should be translated into simple language for women’s understanding.
  • Guidance, counseling and rehabilitation should be given to victims of violence while women and the public in general ought to be given access to information regarding their legal rights.
  • Special vigilant groups ought to be set up to ensure the implementation of the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and sanctions placed against those people who violate the rights of women.
  • Women’s groups should be strengthened at all levels if transformation of society is to happen.
  • Codes of conduct at workplaces ought to be introduced to ensure that sexual abuses are not tolerated.

N.B:    There has also been a proposal to protect victims of rape from being cross examined about their sexual history because during trials, the evidence of the complainants (women’s) sexual history is rarely relevant, bearing in mind the prejudicial character of such evidence.


“Together We Can Make it Happen”

Leila Sheikh

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