Tanzania Daily News (Dar es Salaam)

18 July 2013

Tanzania: First Ladies and Contestations Over Women's Citizenship

Recently, the work of Tanzanian First Lady Salma Kikwete was honoured by Voices of African Mothers (VAM), for her strong leadership to support Tanzania community in achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

She attended the event with other First ladies and women leaders. Nor was this the first time she was honoured. A few months prior she received a Respect Award from UMATI Tanzania. Her accomplishments are many including her work in promoting the education of girls; maternal health and the economic status of women and girls.

Before her, Mama Anna Mkapa was lauded, in the country as well as outside the country, for her work in promoting food security. Since 1997, every year she held "the Tele Food" event, one of the biggest TV events. By 2002 Tele Food had raised Tshs. 205 million locally and funded 45 projects across the country.

Funds raised were used to assist the rural poor, especially women. A large proportion of TeleFood resources has benefited women groups, who are primarily engaged in food production. Importantly the event it raised issue to the important question of food security amidst the on-going drought in the region, climate change and increased levels of income poverty.

Mama Mkapa continues to be remembered for her work in organising women, especially small producers and entrepreneurs, and facilitating their training and access to markets. To date women producers throng international trade fairs as well as local fairs.

In this sense, while their husbands have epitomised the exercise of first generation rights mainly rights related to civil and political rights such as tenure in public office and other civil guarantees, first ladies on the other hand have focused their efforts on the promotion of social, economic and cultural rights which overwhelmingly deal with the everyday necessities of citizens to live a dignified life.

In some respect their advocacy has also tended to address gender issues in the sense of challenging the way power is used to discriminate against particular groups such as the question of child marriages or the unnecessary death of pregnant women because of inadequate investments in health care as well as the detached attitude of expecting fathers in the pregnancy.

Yet, the roles of first ladies have not always been appreciated or viewed positively. The more the African state assumes an authoritarian character whereby the leadership represents the state apparatus, the more vulnerable women with a noticeable affinity to the state.

Attacks against women affiliated to the first office, these include the wives, the daughters and sometimes the mistresses as in Malawi under the regime of Banda, demonstrate a shift in the conception of the female subject associated to or with state power in contemporary Africa. In fact, the evolution of the first lady phenomena demonstrates the struggle for women's citizenship in emerging democracies in Africa.

Their identities represent the spectrum of citizenship struggles across the continent. For instance, the post-independence wives of heads of states were in many ways different from those we see presently at the turn of the millennium. From co-revolutionaries like the wives of Samora Machel, to mothers of the nation like Winnie Mandela or Maria Nyerere t o highly qualified professionals like Rosine Soglo of the Benin Republic or philanthropists like Laraba Tanja of Niger.

Then there are those who have been accused of 'corrupt practices' like Grace Mugabe or Maureen Chiluba, women who are as vilified as their husbands and often associated with their spouse's errant ways. In such a case the first spouse in not just an innocent bystander or an uninterested party in her husband's or partners leadership but a partner 'in crime' who has some interests or stake in their political survivor.

My basic preposition in writing about the African First Ladies Summit is to demonstrate the novel ways in which African First ladies have not just assumed public agendas but also have recast the whole discussion on women and citizenship.

Thus, whereas women's citizenship status was and in some cases continues to be invoked from the point of view of the law, especially personal laws, the symbolism in the persons of the first ladies indicates the existence of another discourse on women's citizenship status, perhaps a less articulated discourse, but one that is very present.

Certainly how women associated with the first office are ultimately judged- be they damned on account of what they do or do not do in public or private signals a continued tension between cultural expectations, on the one hand, and the modernization effect on the other. It is clear that through their roles they no longer conform to the citizen provided for in laws. In every sense they too are a by-product of the developmentalist project that grips different cadres of the population regardless of their origin or background.

I propose that amidst the constitutional review process, and as we consider the rights of women, not as wives or as mothers but primarily as citizens. It is thus opportune that we delve deeper to understand the emerging contestations and discourses related to women's citizenship struggles.

Specifically how has the manner in which such women act out their identities as first ladies or wives have a bearing on the larger question of women's citizenship in national frameworks. Today, African First ladies are very public figures by virtue of their positions as well as in their individual capacities.

And this will continue to be the trend. Even among opposition parties in Tanzania, some prominent leaders are married or are in a relationship with accomplished women. Today the first spouse is not just a home maker or sitting behind her man, waiting for him to make things happen. Rather many first ladies including in Tanzania are newsmakers on their own terms.

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