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Creating change on gender issues in Tanzania

How does change come? I was having a conversation with someone this week who noted that within a generation the expectations around women in Tanzania have changed. The examples he gave were two things that feature a lot in human rights advocacy in Tanzania: girls’ education, and domestic violence.

Girls’ education

The issue with educating girls was previously that it was not seen to be a good investment. A girl would marry and move to be with her husband and contribute to his family, so her family didn’t benefit from her education. You could still get 20 cows for a girl without an education if she could cook, clean and work in the family’s fields.

This changed when parents worked out that they could still call on a daughter to support them in their old age even if she was married. And a daughter who worked outside the home in a profession or business had more money with which to support her parents. It was in their interest that she be able to earn a greater income!

What’s interesting to me about this is that there’s no appeal made to the rights of women. It’s still fundamentally self-interested on the parents’ part, but it also brings a better life for the women. Most people don’t change their long-held beliefs and practices out of purely altruistic motives. It’s worth looking for the win-wins, especially in less individualistic societies where the intertwining of people’s lives looms large.

In this same part of the conversation, my friend was talking about how culturally it’s very shameful for men to be seen in the kitchen. It’s even talked about as taboo or forbidden. Change doesn’t come from telling men they should do it even though it’s shameful. You have to remove the shame somehow, and on a corporate level too — because even if a bloke thinks it’s good to be in the kitchen, there’s still the friend who comes in and sees a him there and asks him if he’s been bewitched by his wife. The Christian gospel has stuff to say about shame embrace and shame removal, but it’s not a part of Christian theology that Tanzanians spend a lot of time on. Neither do us westerners for that matter, so I have an intuition that there’s something there that could help, but I’m not confident on how it could be applied.

Wife beating

On wife beating, my friend said he could point to a stark difference in what is normal. He grew up in a village where you would hear a woman being beaten, perhaps even look in at the window, or see her running away. His mother would go visiting to comfort women who had been beaten. It was part of the backdrop of life. However, his own children would be shocked to see this today because not only is it not part of their experience of their parents’ marriage, but also they do not see it as part of community life. This is not to say it doesn’t happen – life in cities means things can be hidden – but he does think the practice has decreased as it has become less normal.

I asked what precipitated this change, and he said it was not an explicit teaching about women’s rights or violence. Instead, it was something that happened in the course of the mixing of tribes in Tanzania. People saw things done differently, and worked out that the way things were done in the little village they lived in wasn’t the only way to live. Seeing people with different practices and habits got them thinking about what they wanted to do that was different to their parents, and so there was a generational shift.

I asked him if there was a part to be played by explicit teaching around violence against women and whether it was right or wrong. He didn’t dismiss this out of hand, but he warned that a person can say these things and then beat his own wife. He saw the general broadening of mind that comes from mixing with others, whether in boarding school or university, or mixed tribal marriages, as historically far more successful.


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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