Wednesday, October 8 constituted a momentous day in the history of Tanzania. The country’s draft Committee of the Constitute Assembly, the body tasked with writing a new constitution for the East African country, officially presented its work to President Jakaya Kikwete along with President of the autonomous Zanzibar region Ali Mohamed Shein in Dodoma.
The editorial board of the Daily News, a prominent Tanzanian daily newspaper, described the day as “momentous,” as the country will soon have a new “mission statement.” The draft constitution has been further heralded by human rights activists who say that it improves upon many of the faults of the country’s former document, originally drafted in 1977.
Many of the most notable advancements in the new draft constitution are in women’s rights. The new document guarantees women “equal citizenship rights” including the right to own land, the ability to bestow citizenship on their children (rather than taking citizenship from the father), equal employment rights and maternity leave, along with a definition of children as those under 18, making a significant stride against child marriage, Usu Mallya, the former Executive Director of the Tanzania Gender Networking Program told the Daily News.
Ruth Meena, a Professor and and a board member of the Women Fund Tanzania, went further, saying that the gender issues were taken “as proposed” by equality activists.
The connection between the activists and the decisions of the Constituent Assembly can be seen clearly in a 2014 letter to the chairman of the Assembly by the American human rights organization Human Rights Watch.
The letter, detailing the problem of child marriage in Tanzania, urged the Assembly to provide for “full equality for women, and full equality to both spouses in a marriage, including in matters relating to marriage, child custody, property ownership and inheritance, and divorce” in the new Constitution. Activists seem to have gotten the majority of their wishes in the draft.
The constitution also guarantees equal representation between men and women in decision making bodies, including parliament. This is a positive development in a country with 36 percent female representation in its parliament, already 22nd in the world, but a revolutionary concept worldwide, where less than one in five members of parliament is female.
According to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only two countries in the world currently have 50% or greater female representation in parliament, this includes Tanzania’s neighbor to the West, Rwanda, along with Andorra. Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament by a wide margin at nearly 64 percent (51 of 80) while Andorra clocks in at exactly half (14 of 28).
In the Footsteps of Rwanda
While Andorra’s constitution does not require such equality, the Rwandan constitution imposes a quota for female representation similar to Tanzania, though only requiring 30 percent female representation in each chamber.
Even so elections have more than doubled the constitutional mandate. Guaranteeing equal representation is a positive a step and will immediately propel the country into the top three countries in female representation internationally.
The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report puts Tanzania 66th in the world, well within the top half of the 136 countries surveyed but still with tremendous room for improvement.
In particular, the country scores poorly in educational attainment and health and survival for women, coming in at 118 and 112 in the world respectively. It is bolstered by a high score in political empowerment, something that should only improve under the new constitution.
While in the past a relatively high level of female political empowerment has failed to protect women from the ills of poor educational attainment and health and survival, including what Mallya described as the “persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women especially in rural areas, inequalities in arrangements for productive activities and in access to resources” along with a “lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women,” the new Constitution has bred hope.
Equality activists believe that the new constitutional structure will help, between new, positive guarantees of women’s rights and equal representation on all decision making bodies.
It is true that only time will tell what the new constitution will do for women in, and indeed, all of Tanzania. The time table for the document being put into force is has been questioned, with Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda wishing for a referendum to take place at the same time as next year’s general election.
This idea has been endorsed by a number of members of parliament, according to MP Juma Nkamia, but there is a worry that such a ballot, including a constitutional referendum and the selection of a new president, will be too much without adequate time to prepare.
While there will certainly be wrangling over the document’s passage, the advancements in women’s rights are significant and, should the document be approved, will no doubt lead to improvements in the lives of women in Tanzania.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.