Women’s Rights and Leadership Forums

Working with the Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) and the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT), pastoralist women in northern Tanzania are forming Women’s Rights and Leadership Forums (WRLFs) at the community level to, among other things, learn about and defend land rights, strengthen women’s leadership and public participation, and enhance women’s economic empowerment. A recent review of the WRLF program identified six areas of impact, which are shared with illustrative quotes and anecdotes below.

“Nowadays there are no meetings held without women present. We are becoming satisfied that men are respecting our rights in meetings. If a woman has an issue to raise at a meeting, she can do so even if the meeting is dominated by men. We have come to realize that the best tool to use to get our voices heard is the women’s forum.”

-Nembaso Lesayori, WRLF Chairperson, Oloipiri Village, Ngorongoro District

Women are organizing and leading actions to strengthen and defend women’s property rights and the land rights of their communities as a whole.

In Kimotorok Village (Simanjiro District), women were struggling, with little luck, to have their land rights recognized by the village government. At the same time, village land was being given to pastoralist men from other regions who were coming with their livestock during the dry season. When the dry season ended, these men did not leave (and were not asked to leave by the Village Council) because they had lost grazing land in their own areas. Women in the WRLF agreed that it was unjust for men from other regions to be given land while their own land claims were going unheard. They decided to take action. They organized themselves, contributed money to buy padlocks, and locked the doors to the village government office. These courageous women kept the doors locked and took control of the office for an entire month, with women from the WRLF taking on the role of village chairperson, until the issue was resolved. A Village General Assembly was called (this is the decision-making forum open to all village residents). Prior to the Assembly, the women burnt land allocation papers that had been issued in violation of proper procedure, and said that the allocation of land had to start afresh and follow correct procedures. Ultimately, the General Assembly agreed that, while the pastoralists from other regions could stay and graze their animals during the dry season, they would have to move on afterwards and would have no rights to the land.

“As a community, our biggest challenge is land grabs, and we need to address this as a priority. Women are at the forefront in trying to secure our land through meetings with communities and with government. Our stand is that we will not give up a single meter of village land.”

– Daniel Saiyori, sub-village Chairperson and traditional leader, Oloipiri Village, Ngorongoro District

“Without security of land tenure, we Maasai will disappear as water runs through sand. Realizing this, women have become very strong in the struggle to acquire land tenure security in this district.”

- Susanna Koila, Activist and women’s leader, Sakala Village, Ngorongoro District

Economic empowerment needs to go hand-in-hand with political and legal empowerment, including to help ensure that women have the resources to engage in the struggle for their rights. In many cases, women are raising their own funds to organize and lead action.

In Loiborsiret village land was illegally being given to migrants by a prominent local authority. When the (male) leadership failed to respond, the 24-person WRLF raised funds, hired transport, and went directly to the Office of the Regional Commissioner to lodge a public complaint. The WRLF’s public action got attention, which included a nationally televised news story. The action also reflected the women’s strategic know-how. They explained that they did not go to the district office first, which would have been standard protocol, because they believed that their demands would receive a more immediate response if taken to the regional level. While responses are still being negotiated, the WRLF members remain hopeful that their action will result in restitution of their community’s land.

Women in Loiborsiret run a cattle dip business, which provided the funds for this advocacy effort. Before having their own income, women would not have had independent access to these funds because men controlled the family property and income.

“We women have new knowledge that enables us to defend our land through the right channels. We may not know how to read and write but we surely have tongues and we will make use of them.”

- Ndawasai Natisile, WRLF representative, Malambo Village, Ngorongoro District

WRLFs are working with women and men, and with both customary and statutory institutions at the local level. They also engage strategically with higher levels of government. Through this, they are demonstrating their capacity, gaining legitimacy, building solidarity, and using multiple pathways to create change.

There is a long-running conflict in Loliondo over a 1,500 km2 hunting block allocated to Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a foreign-owned game hunting operation. This block covers the land of 12 villages, and has been contested by local communities since it was granted in 1992. In 2009, the conflict heightened when the government evicted pastoralists from their grazing lands to make way for OBC, and more than 50 homesteads were burned. Since 2009, women have played a major role in resisting efforts to evict the Maasai from Loliondo, including by returning 2,000 ruling party membership cards with this message:

“Here are your cards. Your party and government have abused our rights and taken our land, and we can no longer vote for you. If and when you return our land to us, we may come and ask for our cards back. Until then we will not vote for you.”

Pastoralists moved back to their lands, but in March 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism (MNRT) proposed to enforce new wildlife law provisions that would have required evicting pastoralists from their land. This would have resulted in the eviction of around 70,000 people from their village lands and have had negative impacts on the livestock-based livelihoods of the whole district. In response, women from Loliondo sent a delegation of 100 women, along with traditional leaders and village government representatives, to Parliament in June 2013, raising money to cover the costs of the journey. These women say that having knowledge about the land laws gave them the confidence to speak with authority to high-standing public figures. With the local government and traditional leaders, the women talked to the Prime Minister (PM) and the national press, demanding a letter that would denounce the decaled land as Game Reserve. Then, in September 2013, the PM visited Loliondo to confirm that the land would remain village land, and that MNRT’s decision had been rescinded. However, in practice, the land has not been securely returned to the community, and the conflict is resurging. Women in Loliondo continue to seek longer-term strategies to defend their land.

“… We’ve gained a lot now and we’ve formed a women’s council. But we thought to make it work, we need to be unified with our men. From there the truth will prevail. So we called upon the village government to join with the traditional leaders. We met and talked at length, and afterwards we came to understand each other better. Hear me, these things will only work if we all sail together in one boat.”

- Nembaso Lesayori, WRLF Chairperson, Oloipiri Village, Ngorongoro District

Training and support from knowledgeable, local partners (UCRT and PWC) have been critical. Women were supported in understanding what their legal rights are and, as a result, are now claiming those rights.

The WRLFs in Kiteto, Longido, Simanjiro, and Ngorongoro Districts have successfully helped almost 500 women (most of whom are widows) acquire plots based on an acknowledgement letter from the Village Council. This has been particularly helpful to individual women who want a home or a business in a village settlement.

“We were given seminars on our rights and about land rights, and this has really opened our eyes a lot, that is, to know that we do have rights. We learned that land belongs to everyone, not just a few. We learned that even in a polygamous family, each woman has rights to property. So now women are trying to get their own plots and are securing their own property.”

–Helena Mbarnoti, WRLF representative, Loiborsiret Village, Simanjiro District

WRLFs are having more impact than was anticipated, as courageous and committed women take the lead in defending their land rights. A village-level movement for greater realization of women’s and pastoralist’s land rights appears to be taking shape, and women are at the forefront.

“Now women stand and speak directly to the meeting… This effects a positive change, especially in regard to the community regaining control over the land… Woman are particularly strong on this, stronger than men. The attitude of women to land has been noticed by the (male) customary leadership, who have admired their strength, determination and knowledge, and who have decided to join them in the struggle for land rights.”

– Mereye Nepapai, WRLF member, Mokilal Village, NCA

However, there is a daunting struggle ahead. WRLFs and their partners need appropriate, respectful, and empowering support from multiple levels to continue what they have started and to nurture this nascent social movement in northern Tanzania.

“We are grateful to the NGOs for giving us knowledge about the land laws, but we still need help to put pressure on the authorities to secure our grazing lands for the community!”

Helena Mbarnoti, WRLF member, Loiborsiret Village, Simanjiro District

Learn more:

Women’s Rights and Leadership Forums

The Pastoral Women’s Council

Ujamaa Community Resource Team

Maliasili Initiatives

Supporting the growth, development and performance of leading CSOs working to advance sustainable natural resource management practices in Africa.

Supporting the growth, development and performance of leading CSOs working to advance sustainable natural resource management practices in Africa.