Tanzania is reviewing its constitution throughout 2013, giving people across the country the opportunity to input into the rewriting of the core governing principles of the nation. VSO volunteer Louise Jenkins is working through UN Women with leading Tanzanian feminist Mary Rusimbi to ensure women from all socio-economic backgrounds have the chance to be heard by decision-makers at the highest level.
A girl born in poverty
Born in a small village in Kagera, Tanzania, 22-year-old Aisha was raised by her grandparents after losing both her parents before reaching the age of five. She recalls a lady who would often visit her rural community looking for girls to work as maids in the capital,:“I told her to please take me, because I wanted to go to the city to work as a house girl,” said Aisha.
But life in the city was quite different from what she imagined. Describing her early experiences in the capital Dar es Salaam, Aisha remembers: “The lady took me to a big house with many small rooms and there were lots of other girls staying there, wearing very skimpy clothes.”
After spending a week doing housework, Aisha was taken to buy similar clothes for herself. “I was given one of the rooms like the other girls slept in at night. Then I was called into a room where there were men. The lady who had brought me announced that I was a very new girl and they could take me if they offered a lot of money.”
Aisha was raped that night, and for the following three years she was forced to live as a sex worker before managing to escape. “The day I got out was my first night out alone on the streets, and I was raped. I lived on the streets for quite some time.”
Though she eventually escaped the clutches of the woman who brought her to the city, Aisha feels she has no option but to continue living as a sex worker. Today, she is a member of KBH, a support group that was formed by fellow sex worker Habiba Hasheem to give a unified voice to women born in poverty forced into a very challenging way of life.
Women’s voices must be heard at the highest level
Mary Rusimbi is one of Tanzania’s leading feminists. She argues that the same elite male voices will influence the new governing principles of the nation unless women from a cross-section of society engage with the current constitutional review process.
With the support of VSO volunteer Louise Jenkins, she engages grassroots women’s groups like KBH to learn about the review process and add their voice to the fight for gender equality.
Mary Rusimibi said: “We need a constitution that is progressive, with gender sensitive policies and strategies implemented with respect for women...when women remain poor, a country cannot grow – that is what needs to be understood at the national and international level.”
She adds, “Women are the fabric of society, they hold society together – they make a major contribution which goes unnoticed. They also have a lot of issues, which should be known at public policy level.”
From the grassroots to the governing bodies
In the case of sex workers like Aisha, the conventions and training facilitated by Mary and VSO volunteer Louise enables the voices of this marginalised group to be heard and the tools to demand protection from the state.
28 year-old Habiba started KBH after being invited to a conference where she learned about leadership for marginalised women. “After forming the group I went to the local government authorities to register our group so we can advocate for our rights as commercial sex workers.”
With the support of Mary and Louise, the group have been establishing their priorities for what they would like to see in the new constitution. “We are not recognised by the law, but we need housing and access to basic healthcare that we are often denied, because we don’t have a husband by our side when we visit the doctor – this is an injustice.”
“Women should be placed at all levels of leadership, even if there are only a few in a high position, they might be the only ones who think of those who are discriminated against, “says Habiba. Even though national politics can often feel far removed from her life and from the lives of other marginalised women, she believes it is important to join forces with women from across the country during the constitutional review process.
VSO volunteer Louise draws on her experience with women’s rights organisations in the UK to improve the effectiveness of grassroots women’s groups like KBH. She said:“ In order to support women and girls to become the leaders of tomorrow, they need to feel empowered to do so and what I’m already seeing is exactly that; from the grassroots level, women are now taking action; they’re taking the constitution and they’re saying, ‘This is what we want.”
Sisters are doing it for themselves - blog post