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Women, marriage and the law in Tanzania

A few weeks back I saw a notice for the St John’s University Women’s Group while I was walking on campus. I had no idea what it was but thought it would be good to investigate. When I turned up, I discovered that I already knew a few of the leaders and that the speaker for that session was my former neighbour and a member of our church, Irene. She’s a lawyer and this was my first experience of seeing her in her professional role, rather than wrangling her 3 small children. She was very impressive and clearly passionate about the topic, which was women’s rights in relation to marriage, particularly to do with wealth. Here’s some of what I learned as I understood it.

Marriage in Tanzania

There are several types of marriage in Tanzania: monogamous, polygamous, and ‘potentially polygamous’. Tanzania has no same-sex marriage. You can be married in a Christian, Muslim, traditional or government (secular) ceremony. Also, if you’ve lived together with your partner for 2 years and there are witnesses to this (such as neighbours), this is counted as defacto marriage.

You need to be 18 to marry but girls can marry at 14 if their father (or mother, if the father is out of the picture) agrees and there are no objections from other advocates, such as a church pastor. As with other marriages, you need to register your intention 21 days before the marriage and objections can be raised during this period. Examples of objections are that one is already married, has HIV, or if there is a concern for the woman’s wellbeing.

Rights in marriage

Within marriage, women have the following rights:

  • Equality, both in interpersonal relationships and in regard to ownership of property
  • Use of wealth. Both partners are to use money to benefit the family rather than themselves. Using money badly forfeits your right to it.
  • Care. A man has responsibility to look after his wife and children. This includes home, food, clothes, education, etc.
  • Acquiring property. A woman has a right to own property in her own name before marriage and during, but in the latter case, this property must be used to benefit the family (see the second right, above.)
  • Shelter. Regardless of whether she owns or joint owns the family property or who inherits it, she has a right to live there if her husband dies.
  • Sex. Not much was said about this except that marriages must be consummated.

One of the fascinating things about how money works is that wealth is also considered in terms of contribution. It is accepted that a mama has the right not to work but to stay at home and look after the kids. This is recognized as a contribution to the wealth of the family. Thus when it comes to dividing assets in the event of divorce or death, a woman who has been a ‘stay at home mum’ has a valid interest in and right to claim the wealth of the family.

The reality for many women

However, many women find that in the case of divorce and especially death, their life and wealth are quickly taken over by the male inheritor with little consultation or regard for her wishes. The presenter gave a number of ‘back up’ suggestions and comments about how to be ‘on the safe side’. For example, if you have a joint bank account, your husband can’t get a mortgage without your consent, so you always know what’s happening with your money. Likewise, if any property you own is ‘joint common property’, meaning that the couple own it together, if one dies, it becomes the sole property of the other and that’s pretty watertight. A backup for this is to make sure your husband’s will says he’s leaving everything to you!

Even with these laws that can work in a woman’s favour, many do not avail themselves of these rights. This is their prerogative, to follow the laws and customs of their tribe or their religion rather than the government’s laws. They are not obligated to claim these rights. However, many women don’t fail to claim their rights for one of two other reasons:

  1. Education. Many women simply don’t know their rights, and neither do many men. We were told categorically by a man the other day that women are not allowed to own land in Tanzania. Legally, this is simply not true! However, misinformation persists, and many of the women at the workshop were surprised to learn of some of these laws.
  2. Social pressure. Even if a woman knows her rights, she may face tremendous social pressure not to exercise them, and to submit to the customs of her tribe or religion. What good is it to say, ‘I have this right in law’ if exercising it makes you appear to be a ‘bad woman’ to your entire family and tribe?

Related to both of these, many women face the situation where once they’re educated and ready to exercise their rights, they may have to change existing legal arrangements. For example, she may have to speak to her husband about changing the title deed of their house over to ‘joint common property’, or changing their bank account to be a joint one. During the workshop there was quite an extended discussion about how and when to do this. Displaying their characteristic good humour, the women agreed that men are often happy and well disposed towards their wives on Christmas Day!

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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