DAR ES SALAAM Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sakina Mzava was still mourning the loss of her husband when her father-in-law kicked her out of her marital home in Vikindu village in Tanzania’s Coast Region. He also told her to hand over a piece of land she had been using to grow crops.
“I was heartbroken, but I had no other choice than to let it go. I thought it was probably the end of my life too,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Customary law in the village in Mkuranga district dictates that women gain access to land through their male partners or relatives, and after the death of Mzava’s husband three years ago, his family turned hostile.
Her brothers-in-law accused her of causing the death of her husband, who passed away after a short illness, in order to inherit family property and a farm.
“I had to flee with my children and seek shelter at my sister’s home,” said the 35-year-old mother of two. “They took everything.”
Tanzania’s proposed new constitution - handed over to the president on Wednesday - offers fresh hope to women in a similar situation as it contains language spelling out clearly for the first time that women have the same rights to own and use land as men.
Mzava, who was married under a customary arrangement, lost virtually everything because such marriages are not registered, meaning she is unlikely to regain her property.
Mzava’s story represents the plight of many rural women in Tanzania who, despite shouldering the bulk of family responsibilities, end up with nothing if they divorce or their spouses die.
While formal laws do guarantee equal rights for Tanzanian women to access and own land, customary laws and traditional practices - still predominant in most parts of the country - prevent official legal provisions from being applied.
A lack of enforcement and widespread ignorance mean that women, who make up at least half of the country’s agricultural workforce, rarely own the land they farm.
The new constitution, endorsed by parliament last week, is almost certain to become law, experts say, although it will be put to a referendum first. According to Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, it is set to be enacted before general elections in October 2015.
Article 22 of the proposed constitution states: ”Every woman is entitled to acquire, own, use or develop land under the same conditions as for men.”
Legal experts expect that a constitutional clause enshrining women’s right to own land will change the status quo because it would have higher legal sway than customary laws that are discriminatory yet currently have equal status in the courts with any other law.
“It is important to recognize women’s rights in order to protect them against a male-dominated system,” said Andrew Chenge, chairman of the Constitutional Assembly’s drafting committee.
Societies where land issues are not well governed are prone to persistent land conflicts, Chenge noted. A specific chapter in the new constitution that addresses land issues will help resolve disputes, especially between farmers and pastoralists, many of whom are women, he added.
Women’s rights groups are optimistic that the new constitution – intended to replace the 1977 constitution - will help female farmers enjoy the economic fruits of their labor.
“The draft constitution has well defined the word ‘person’ because in some communities people believe a ‘person’ is a man and not a woman,” said Anna Abdallah, a women’s rights activist and member of the Constitutional Assembly. “This is the kind of equality we have been fighting for.”
Usu Mallya of the Tanzania Gender Networking Program said her group was convinced the new constitution would enable women to own land and benefit from other natural resources.
Women’s right to land tenure was adopted in Tanzania’s national policy in the 1990s. In addition, 1999 legislation on land governance generally provides for women’s rights to access, own and control land equally with men, as well as their right to participate in decision-making bodies on land matters.
Despite this, local experts say most women - especially farmers in rural areas - are still discriminated against or denied those rights.
Some fear that the inclusion of women’s land rights in the new constitution may not change the status quo because the country lacks systems to govern land administration.
Yefred Mnyenzi of the Land Rights Research and Resources Institute (Haki Ardhi) said fundamental principles determining land rights in Tanzania still favor powerful, well-connected people such as elites and foreign investors.
Given the growing commercial interest in agricultural land, the constitution should have included a mechanism to stop farmland from being taken away from local people who need it for their survival, Mnyenzi said.
Farming remains an essential source of income for many rural women who have few other options. But the impacts of climate change are making it harder to earn a decent living.
A growing number of farmers have identified irrigation as an important strategy to help them adapt to increasingly erratic rains. But experts say few women benefit from irrigation systems because men have stronger land rights and access to agricultural services, creating tensions.
Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Megan Rowling