WHEN Grace Bbayu (36), a resident of Mvumi village in Dodoma lost her husband in 2002, she thought that was one of the worst blows in her life. But more was yet to come.
Just as she was reeling from the partner's loss, she had her property confiscated by inlaws, leading to a series of sufferings which almost drove her to a point of despair.
One of the husband's relatives wanted to inherit her, including all the property, situations that a Gender Equality and Women Empowerment programme (GEWEII) seeks to fight. But then, a moment of hope came when a neighbour, who had attended trainings on women's rights through a local Non Government Organisation, told her to visit one of their offices.
It was then that she went to paralegals that help in such cases, spending days in courts of law under lawyers' assistance, Grace was able to triumph-getting the property backand opening a fresh chapter of life for her 5 children.
At a recent interview with Grace in Dodoma, she said many more widows were initially wallowing in poverty and became destitute, as they had for a long time been culturally prohibited from inheriting land - a critical factor of production and source of wealth.
Her neigbour, Fatuma Ali, said there were many experiences where women, having lost their husbands in 1980s, 1990s and were subsequently exposed to confiscation of property, including land by their in-laws, living them at the edge of deciding whether to return to their parents homes regions or live a life of begging.
"In many of our traditional settings, we were basically labourers who were not expected to lay any claim to property rights. In the long term, as it has shown for many of us, the woman suffers marginalisation, "she said while resting her small frame on the table.
"Interestingly, she adds, land activity was largely our preserve, the womenfolk, yet the rights to it were none of our business", she said. Forty-three year old Fatuma, who has used her knowledge to form groups of hundreds of women across the area, said public education by village councils and civil society has enlightened hundreds of her folk.
"Affected women had no where to run to those days as they suffered in silence for donkey years," she said. Traditions, customs and practices which discriminate women in matters of access, use and ownership of land have been outlawed by the Land Act and this is evidently largely being implemented in Dodoma and Singida.
The education from paralegals, seeking to reinforce women's rights to inheritance and acquisition of family land, started in the area three years ago. "The campaigns are carried out to 'encourage the abandonment of cultural practices that bar women from inheriting land' and to encourage citizens to write wills with the aim of averting conflicts over inheritance," says WOWAP Director Fatuma Tawfiqu, an NGO with paralegals. "It is that sense of freshness but the government and civil society still has to do more.
Because with it, our society can begin to start seeing women not as passive actors, but those who can contribute immensely to economic growth by owning and controlling how this important asset is used, "she said.
The land law, they said, had helped them spell out a clear system and offices where people now go to have their land disputes solved, at village council levels.
Ms Tawfiqu, says the radical move, which was initially facing resistance by forces supportive of cultures and traditions had confined women to the fence of family property, had gradually received acceptance as more women armed themselves with information on what their land rights are and where they can report in case of difficulties.
"We have to right the cultural and social economic wrongs that hinder the economic progress of women and other traditional disadvantaged groups, in all rural Tanzania," she said.
She said that Land rights issues which were initially seen to be putting tradition and modernity in a confrontation is currently gaining approval on either side as girls are viewed as stakeholders in their family land.
Early marriage for women, she noted, was an issue the government was confronting with the view to empower the female child in that respect as well.
"That low social and educational status of women in some societies prevent them from taking decision on their direction at given points in time, which in more cases than one, condemns them to poverty, "she said.
This was eloquently put by Fatuma when she said "the struggle for rights to land is bigger than the struggle to alleviate poverty." She describes the developments as "historic and important" and congratulates the village councils for fronting the cause that ensures equal rights to land for both men and women."
She says that throughout the country, women are reputed to produce at least 80 per cent of the country's food and with at least 90 per cent of their labour being channelled towards food production and processing. Disturbing facts in the past were paying a grim picture of Tanzanian women only holding slightly over one per cent of land titles yet they form over 80 per cent of the workforce in the agricultural sector.
However, with such existing land law arrangement, it is now difficult for a man to sell or mortgage family land without the consent of his wife. "Before selling such land, the seller is required to produce evidence of the spousal consent, showing that the decision had been agreed upon by his or her partner, "she said.
The programme, which started two years ago has seen trainings on legal rights in four villages of Makangwa, Kipanga, Mtikila and Zanka, where she says, the challenges were having to confront a partriachal system, which is an impendiment for women in attempting to access justice.
She also says that they find that many women in rural areas are in cultural marriages, whose value settings sometimes contradict state laws. "So, such a woman using state laws is a challenge," she says. She, however, notes that there are others who change fast.
For example, a 70 year old man at Mkunza village in Dodoma district got two trainings on land rights and legal literacy. And as it turns out, he has become a trainer of fellow communities and this has solved many land and marriage conflicts around his area.