from Africa in Transition

Tanzania Shows It Has A Woman’s Constitution

December 03, 2014

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This is a guest post by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, a journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

A victory for women. That’s what October 8 represented in Tanzania as the East African nation’s Committee of the Constituent Assembly officially presented a draft for a new constitution to President Jakaya Kikwete, the first new constitution since 1977. This draft has been endorsed by parliament and will likely become law when it is put through a referendum in the spring before the October 2015 general elections.

This newly proposed constitution does not make many major changes to the structure of government, but it is a watershed document in that it guarantees women “equal citizenship rights,” such as Article 22’s codification that “every woman is entitled to acquire, own, use or develop land under the same conditions as men.” It also gives women the important ability to bestow citizenship to their children, rather than taking citizenship from the father, and to have equal employment rights as well as maternity leave. And, it explicitly defines children as those under eighteen, taking a clear stand against child marriage.

The proposed constitution also guarantees equal representation between the sexes in parliament, a progressive step in a country with 36 percent female representation in its parliament, already the twenty-second highest in the world, but revolutionary worldwide where women comprise less than one in five members of parliament.

Will a new constitution codifying these basic rights make a difference? Tanzania’s gender equality ambitions have been thwarted before. In the 1990s, Tanzania gave women the right to own and control land, yet today women are largely still denied those rights since customary laws and traditional practices prevalent nationwide prevent those legal provisions from being followed. The country also lacks an administrative system of land governance.

Still, there are good reasons to be optimistic. First, the fact that the constitutional framers codified the gender rights in language that clearly spells out that women have the same rights to land as men showcases that they think more needs to be done. Second, it is a recognition that societies where land issues are not well governed are prone to persistent land conflicts. And importantly, as a constitutional clause, these rights are provided greater legal protection than some of the discriminatory but customary laws afforded equal status in the courts.

The new gender equality efforts further recognize that women rarely own the land they farm, despite making up 50 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce. With few sources of income, especially in rural areas, women often bear the brunt of family responsibilities yet if they get divorced or a spouse dies, they frequently end up with nothing. Now, women will be better able to resolve disputes and enjoy the economic results of their work.

As one female Constitutional Assembly member told reporters: “The draft constitution has well defined the word “person” because in some communities people believe a “person” is a man and not a woman. This is the kind of equality we have been fighting for.”

Political and economic empowerment have not historically protected women from the ills of poor education, health and survival, a struggle in Tanzania where the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranks it 118 and 112 respectively. But this constitution, written by both men and women, is a start in codifying the concept of basic inalienable rights to all “persons.”