For the past five years, the work of Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the Anglican Church of Canada’s relief and development agency, has focused on the health of mothers and newborns in southern Tanzania’s diocese of Masasi.
And though the project has incorporated a wide-range of initiatives, many of them have relied on a single underlying principle: the empowerment of women.
“It is all related,” says Zaida Bastos, director of PWRDF’s development partnership program, who made her first trip to Masasi on behalf of the agency in 1997 and has been returning regularly ever since.
“In order to have this conversation [about health], we also need to begin to discuss the status of women within the family, within the community.”
Bastos was one of 10-member delegation of PWRDF volunteers and staff that travelled to Masasi from May 12-20 to learn more about two recent projects: the Community Health Improvement Program (CHIP), which ended in March 2017, and All Mothers and Children Count (AMCC), which began in 2015 and will go to 2020.
AMCC is part of a larger maternal and newborn child health program PWRDF is implementing in East Africa, and aims to lower infant mortality rates and improve health for mothers and children.
According to Bastos, these specific goals cannot be met if entrenched attitudes about the role of women in the family and in society are not changed.
“In order to be effective in delivering these types of programs, you really need to have…a sense of how these women live,” said Bastos. “Traditionally, the men in the family are the ones that are served first. Then comes the children, and the last are the women.”
This means that when food is scarce, women often have to make do with the least nutritious parts of the meal, which can have a detrimental impact to their health and, if they are pregnant, the health of the unborn baby.
It also means that women are expected to work alongside men in the fields, while also taking care of the children, drawing water from the wells, and doing any number of other domestic activities.
Jacquiline Naga, a 27-year-old AMCC project staff person based in the city of Tunduru, was blunt in her assessment of the status of women in rural Tanzania.
“It is difficult building gender equality in the villages, because they think women are just a decoration of the house, the one [who has to] work hard and do everything,” she says in an interview. “Men use women as objects of pleasure, and after the women get pregnant, they separate.”
A significant part of Naga’s work involves visiting families and helping them to see the benefits of women’s empowerment for the whole household. When women are equal partners, it can yield economic gains, she says. Sharing tasks equally is more efficient, and frees women up to contribute to the family’s income in other ways—by selling products at the market, for example.
But a commitment to gender equality is also built into how the CHIP and AMCC programs operate.
“You can speak of education, etc., but if the woman doesn’t have any resources, how does she have a voice?” Bastos says, noting that farming is the primary source of income for most of the women who will benefit from the AMCC program.
For this reason, PWRDF has made joint ownership a key part of its program.
When a family is given livestock, for example, it is owned by both the man and the woman.
Naga says that in practice, this has provided a safety net for women in case their husbands do leave them, and encouraged men to stay when they might otherwise be tempted to leave.
For Jemirozi Mkali, of Nanganga village, receiving a cow through the CHIP program has meant she can support herself as a single mother of three without feeling pressure to remarry for purely economic reasons.
“I don’t need a husband,” she says through an interpreter when the delegation visited her village May 15. “In fact, if I marry, he’ll probably just try to take my cow!”
How effective have the programs been at changing attitudes toward gender? Ernest and Bastos caution that education takes time, especially when that education goes against established norms.
“They start believing us slowly,” Naga says. “It is very hard to see changes in gender equality…but at the end of the day, changes are seen.”
Bastos was slightly more optimistic, noting that gender equality is one of the areas where she has seen the most gains over the course of her 20 years visiting Masasi.
Not only are women like Naga more involved in development work, men are also more likely to take their children to the clinic and participate more actively in caring for the health of their children, Bastos says.
Women have also taken a greater role in the political life of the villages. Bastos cites data showing that almost 55% of community level positions of power or authority are occupied by women.
“This is really a change,” she says, noting that when she first came, 10% would have been significant.
“It is really one of the strongest changes that I have seen, in terms of changes in behaviour.”
An earlier version of this story wrongly identified Jacquiline Naga as Judith Ernest.