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Attitudes, Lives and Livelihoods: The Fight for Women's Rights in East Africa

Will the increasingly vocal support for education, economic empowerment and a change of attitudes help in the struggle for gender equality?
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Ugandan women, who are part of the Kinawataka Women Initiatives, wait for lunch. Photograph by Scarlett Chidgey.

Arusha, Tanzania:

At a Sunday confirmation party in East Africa, the women of the family are cooking up vats of pilau, frying chicken, and making salads. After asking why the men aren’t helping out in the kitchen, one of the women laughs, saying “It’s African culture. The man doesn’t help in the house or with food - it’s just the way it is!”

This family is wealthy: it owns two cars and a swimming pool, and all the children have blackberries. And while some aspects of Western modernity have been imported into this household, notions of gender equality and women's rights remain noticeably absent.

The same case could be made for East Africa more generally, where domestic violence is prevalent and sexual abuse is often systemic. Teenage girls on Zanzibar report having to do sexual ‘favours’ for schoolteachers, prospective bosses, and even family members. And in some Kenyan tea estates, ‘sex for work’ is so normalised that it is not even viewed as a problem.

Stepping up economically

Elizabeth Mosha, director of the Tanzanian NGO Women in Action, believes that there are still real barriers to the equal treatment of women in East Africa. “Domestic violence is still enormously common and often expected in many of our communities,” she explains. “Men think they are not doing their job unless they beat women. We’ve had to sensitise communities to the fact that violence against women is abnormal and not healthy.”

This, according to Mosha, is also a matter of basic rights. She argues that education for women and girls is essential and that without it young girls fall pregnant, become infected with HIV, or are used for sex. Education can lead to economic independence, which allows women to break out of the cycle of poverty and escape from abuse.

Emphasising women’s economic might is thus one road to change. Women are some of the strongest entrepreneurs in Africa but a range of legal and cultural issues frequently hinder women from being registered as formal owners, meaning they have a large presence in the informal sector. Women are also often not named on title deeds and struggle to get surety for loans.

But some organisations are trying to counter this disadvantage. The Tanzania Women’s Bank, for example, was set up in 2010 to offer small loans and start-up capital to women. The bank tries to find innovative ways to offer loans to those who would otherwise be turned away: groups of friends can be guarantors, for instance, and if one has no real estate to offer as surety, a large item such as a fridge can be accepted instead. Additionally, to overcome geographical constraints, the organisation owns a mobile caravan for travel to remote areas.

And the bank has seen promising results. Speaking to Think Africa Press, Margareth Chacha from the Tanzania Women’s Bank explained: “Over 70% of our farmers are women but women are a totally underutilised economic force in Tanzania. Women across Africa are excellent businesswomen; they are used to handling the family budgets and taking responsibility, they don’t need much capital to start up a small or medium business, and we’ve found them to be 98% reliable in their repayments of loans.”

Also a shift to female empowerment are Africa’s female role models, including a number of prominent businesswomen. In Ethiopia, for example, the international shoe company Sole Rebels is headed by a woman; Sibongile Sambo is the founder of a South African charter airline SRS Aviation; in Zimbabwe, Divine Nhulukulu is a completely self-made security consultant; and South Africa boasts a long list of female luminaries, from politician Cheryl Carolus to author Nadine Gordimer.

These high-profile female figures act as examples for young girls to follow, though it is crucial to note that these women have succeeded on men’s terms and without redefining the social agenda or challenging sexist norms.

Broader change

Indeed, despite some economic progress, many argue that only deeper holistic change will lead to long-term and meaningful change. As Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organisation, puts it, "Tinkering at the edges will not do the job”.

Furthermore, for women to achieve equality, broader social attitudes among both men and women will have to change. Promisingly, Mosha from Women in Action believes progress in this direction is being made. “There’s a huge difference in attitudes between my generation and girls and women in their teens and twenties”, she says. “They are much more informed, confident. We are getting there: we use mobile phones, meetings and one-to-one counselling, and it all works.”

New technologies are proving increasingly important in this struggle. While farming is still the dominant economic force in East Africa, there are millions of young people growing up in urban slums who understand the internet better than they know the soil. And it is these people that organisations such as Take Back the Tech in South Africa and Kubatana in Zimbabwe are targeting. These organisations use technologies such as text messaging and the internet to pass on legal information, advice about sexual health and provide anonymous channels by which women and girls can report rape and harassment.

Take Back the Tech “calls on all ICT users – especially women and girls – to take control of technology and strategically use any ICT platform at hand (mobile phones, instant messengers, blogs, websites, digital cameras, email, podcasts and more) for activism against gender-based violence”. Meanwhile Kubatana aims to ensure that voter registration, particularly for women, is carried out accurately and without harassment. It additionally provides a huge digital library of information on everything from divorce in Egypt to prison conditions in Zambia. And it attracted lots of attention in a recent popular anti-HIV campaign, with the slogan: “Sexy legs, lovely smile. Stop. Stirring in loins. Stop. Bed beckoning. Stop to ponder: Do we have rubbers? Stop.”

Gender equality will only be reached on a meaningful level in East Africa once women have been integrated into every level of the workforce and every level of society. Though important and commendable, rare role models of successful businesswomen and measures to tackle the symptoms of systemic inequalities are not enough. Women need to be valued as managers, politicians, farmers, mothers, wives, cultural leaders – they need a loud voice in the public sphere.

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