The cost of economic independence? To put aside gender equality

Published: 04 August 2011


In Makunduchi, Zanzibar, groups of women wrapped in their colourful kanga, sit in circles. In each group, two or three of them take money from a tin box, count bills and coins and then put them back. The box has three locks; each key is given to a different woman so that the box can only be opened when all three key holders are present. Similar scenes take place around the whole island of Zanzibar as part of WEZA, Women Empowerment in Zanzibar.
The project, which received a contribution of 750,000.00 euros from the EU, is addressed to the female heads of the household, illiterate, poor and rural women, and has been implemented by Care Tz and Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA). It seeks to increase income and to overcome social, cultural and political barriers to rural women’s empowerment in four districts of northern Pemba and Southern Unguja in Zanzibar. Islam is strong in Zanzibar, almost all the women in Stone Town, the biggest town of the island, wear the burqa. Religion is a pretext to control women, their bodies and their minds. Similar to what happens in Stone Town, the women in the smaller villages are also not allowed to be part of society. All they can do is wait for their husbands at home. Or carry out a few minor activities but always under the control of men.
Then WEZA arrived.
The process begins when the local women gather together under the supervision of TAMWA. Each woman puts a little of their weekly earnings in the box until a more substantial sum of money is put aside. At this point, WEZA starts funding the members in their businesses and ideas.
Someone bought chickens to re-sell. Another bought natural fibres to weave and make colourful wallets to sell. Some used the money to go to the city and buy clothes to re-sell.
The financial aspect of the project can be considered a success. The women are able to pay back the money they received and also begin to save money which would suggest that their business works.
But after almost four years since the start of the project and only a few months before the end (January 2012), are women an integral part of the society? Are they equal to men? Do women and men share duties and rights? Four years is nothing to build womens empowerment. In Europe the fight for gender equality started hundreds of years ago and in some cases we still cannot say that women have the same rights as men. This is also the case in Zanzibar.
At the beginning the WEZA groups were only for women. When men realized that the women were making money, they asked to be part of it. Now the groups have male members too who, according to the rules, do not have decision-making roles.
When we arrived in Makunduchi, the men stood up and welcomed us, not the women, as if they were the representatives of the community. When we asked our questions, men were the first to answer and it was difficult to hear a female voice. When we got an answer from the women about what they are doing with their savings, it was a slight disappointment.
They are proud to declare “We don’t give anything to our husbands!”, but then add “Thanks to our earnings, we build our house, buy clothes for our children and provide their education”. That is the burden of duties that a couple should share rather than weighing only on the women’s shoulders. The same old story, also in Zanzibar, that the women are paying the cost of their independence.
Here, as it often happens in developing countries, the economical development is preferred over and above raising awareness on women’s rights. Of course, empowerment depends on the economy too, but money it is not everything. Especially if women become the only actors to create social and economical growth through their earnings.
So the questions are: Where is the philosophical and theoretical background related to gender equality? Should this not be provided as well as the money? And, is it wise not to renew funding to the WEZA project after only four years of activity when there is so much more to be done?