27 December 2012

Tanzania: Women and Sexual Agency in the Constitution

If women are not readily or freely giving views during the process of informing the new constitution, the expectation is that their issues would somehow be considered or receive some prominence in views that are being voiced or proposed by individuals and institutions.

However, the few issues that are being raised with regards to women are to say the least disquieting. To substantiate my point, it is noteworthy that a number of issues contributed on or about women were couched in moral terms and often religion would be evoked to legitimize the position.

Questions with regards to women's sexual and reproductive rights evidenced this. Abortion is among the most contentious issues citizens offered views about. To a large extent many people who spoke on abortion considered it as a moral crime describing it as "taking away the life of an unborn foetus". Yet, not one speaker alluded to the toll of unsafe abortion on women's lives.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), the Safe Motherhood Initiative, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health entities have for a number of years been calling for unsafe abortions to be considered a public health issue in light of the toll on women's lives. Abortions feature among the main causes of maternal morbidity. But during the meetings not one person linked the question of women's reproductive autonomy to their inability to control their fertility.

In fact many times the question of reproduction was often explained in biblical terms where humans were commanded "to go forth and reproduce" regardless of their ability or to do so. As is the case with many anti choice lobbyist women are the means by which humankind reproduces itself. Thus when I asked one man in Geita about the rights of the person who is carrying the child he retorted, "Why do people have sex, is it enjoy or to reproduce?"

In his imagination, couples could not enjoy a sexual relationship for the sake of it, they could only engage in the same pushed by a sense of duty to procreate. Power was rarely challenged even when the Demographic Health Survey or recent studies on GBV consistently confirm that women in Tanzania exercise little choice in reproductive health matters even in marriage.

In fact one study on HIV spread among certain groups found that condom use among Maasaiyouth in cities was high when they slept with prostitutes or casual partners. But the situation was radically different with their wives or regular partners where condom use was inconceivable. Marital rape is a concept most people, men and women alike find difficult to acknowledge.

According to one young man in Butinzya, "A woman who agrees to get married must agree to surrender her goods (sexual organs) unconditionally whenever required to do so". In such a scenario negation over the sexual relationship becomes irrelevant. Such views sanction forced sex or threats against the women should she not comply with her h u s b a n d ' s or partners wishes but because sex and rape specifically is couched in moral terms it proves difficult for women to admit or speak about marital rape even if they did not consent to the act as required by law.

In the minds of the bulk of the population, especially those tainted by religious values or ill- conceived cultural expectations, entering a marital union binds the parties, especially the female party, for whatever comes their way. It was thus futile to draw analogies to challenge the assumption that a sexual relationship could not be regularly negotiated. For instance just because one enters a work contract on poor terms does not mean that they could not ask for a review of the contractual terms should they find they deserved greater benefits.

Would anyone agree to be compelled to abide by the terms of an original employment contract even when extenuating circumstances demand otherwise? Even though many could see he logic of such an argument it only made sense to them in the case of work but never in the case of diminishing their control over their womenfolk, and especially wives. It is perhaps why the question of mahari (bride wealth) evoked so much tension as will be appreciated in a future article.

Surprisingly a few men did raise the question of choice in reproductive matters. One man in Mbeya wanted the state to compel couples to prove that they can cater for the children they wished to bring into the world instead of procreating without limits. In his mind, if couples cannot afford to educate the child, provide it with decent health and housing then they should not be allowed to have the child.

Other men called for family planning education to be more wide spread indicating an unmet FP need. Most recently in Geita one father wanted sexual and reproductive health education for youth to address the growing problem of teenage pregnancy especially among school girls attending ward schools. But the response from community members at the meeting was not receptive and they signalled their discontent with disapproving grunts.

Following the pressure surrounding him, he was forced to dilute his original demand asking instead that girls in ward schools to be 'protected' by the government to reduce the incidents of pregnancy. By caving in to the pressure surrounding him, abandoned a debate that is at the crux of reconsidering the sexual health and needs of young people. Some young people at the meeting alluded to unfriendly FP or prenatal services for young mothers.

And despite Mother and Child Clinics (MCH) in Geita now being directed to cater for the father, mother and child, it remains a new phenomenon with mothers being the ones to send children to attend clinics; or in using the services of MCH mostly for reproductive needs, never for sexual health concerns.

If the latter was the case then more women would know their bodies a recognition that alone would not only minimize unwanted pregnancies but also detect the early onset of cancer and other life threatening diseases since cervical cancer, for instance, is most common among sexually active women with a history of child birth. Thus while a woman's well being depends on the terms in which she engages in sexual relationships, this is a discussion most Tanzanians are still unwilling to have regardless on the toll it imposes on women's lives or that of their families.

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